India at 70: democratic accountability is now an endangered species

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Take just the following four aspects:

  • Propaganda rules over facts: Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known – not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.
  • Dissent is anti-national: The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.
  • Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader – it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.
  • Narcissism and hero-worship: When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest – the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this – to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives – together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.


Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

Holding the state to account

In a democracy, a critical element in the engagement between citizens and state is “accountability”. There are several definitions—one among them from the World Bank reads: “Accountability exists when there is a relationship where an individual or body, and the performance of tasks or functions by that individual or body, are subject to another’s oversight, direction or request that they provide information or justification for their actions”.

Citizens and civil society organizations seek accountability from the state. Where this builds on broad-based civil society engagement, we hear of “social accountability” whose advocates believe that a regular cycle of elections alone are not enough to hold the state to account. For instance, a decline in the quality of public services or cases of denial of (social) justice call for mobilization outside of the electoral cycle. But how does the state respond?

When the state is under sustained pressure to reform, it could take one of these positions: (1) respond to civil society using physical force and/or its legal prowess; (2) stoically “do nothing”; (3) formulate a response that emphasizes form over function; and (4) undertake genuine reform. These options represent a sliding scale of state response, and on any given issue, the state might change its position over time, depending on how the context evolves.

The reality is that more often than not, status quo rules: the space for citizens seeking accountability relies primarily on the willingness of the state. It is not in the nature of states to do this of their own volition, and often, a sustained campaign by a strong coalition of interests is required to influence them.

Further, we are living in an age of rising intolerance of the state towards civil society. While wider penetration of technology has opened up new avenues for broader political participation, the holders of state power have effectively struck back. In democracies like India, this tussle often looks entirely lopsided, as the state machinery has untrammelled resources—legal and financial—at its disposal. Turkey has seen a systematic purge in recent years, and the recent failed coup has strengthened the state’s hand in crushing all opposition.

Given this, how does one move beyond a “do nothing” response? The research programme, Making All Voices Count, talks of “concertation” moments, which occur when “reform-minded officials and politicians” within the state and civil society come together to deliberate on issues and initiate reforms in response. Reform, especially on political issues such as electoral reform, anti-corruption, or reforms to the justice system, requires these coalitions. However, even when “concertation” moments are arrived at, outcomes are not guaranteed.

This is because sometimes, “concertation” moments look like deal-making, where both sides agree on the goal and recognize the urgency of action, but not necessarily on either the process of arriving at the reform, or the broader implications for state-citizen relationship in governance. For instance, with both the Jan Lokpal movement and the demand for reforms to anti-rape laws, the state-civil society engagement appeared to reach an inflexion point which led to legislative action. However, the intended longer-term outcomes have not been realized, suggesting that the state was able to get away with action that emphasised “form” over “function”.

Even so, building reform coalitions remain our best bet. But first, it is important to recognize that a strategy of constant confrontation is unlikely to be fruitful. Confrontation may pay off as a short-term strategy, but is unlikely to yield gains that can be sustained. Secondly, coalitions need to be a combination of key individuals and institutions. For instance, the role of both mainstream and social media—as well as engaging the judiciary—has in recent years become critical to civil society activism.

In India for instance, the state’s inertia has been time and again challenged by directives from the judiciary when civil society pressure proves to be insufficient.

Also, reform coalitions are often dependent on a few influential individuals. Individuals within the state are critical to promoting horizontal accountability systems between different arms of the state, as well as campaigning for effective vertical accountability along the chain of command within arms of the state. Individuals are also crucial in establishing bargaining positions on behalf of civil society.

Every society offers a unique context in which strategies must be designed for citizens to hold the state to account. But social accountability is not just about positioning citizens against their state. In a democracy, it has to be about establishing mutually respected norms and mutually agreed mechanisms of engagement, striking a balance between the primacy of the state in ushering reform, and the legitimate role of civil society in safeguarding the interests of citizens.


This is my latest livemint column

The challenge of Doing Development Differently

I attended the first Doing Development Differently (DDD) workshop organised by the BSC gang at Harvard CID and ODI; read more about the workshop here. See Day 1 summary; and Day 2 summary. Some thoughts, over time:

  1. DDD is the big picture: DDD is about the details and and the beauty of innovation and creativity on the ground. But more importantly, DDD is about the big picture. As the workshop signalled (at least) to me, the battleground for the DDD conspirators/crusaders is the top table, with donors and policymakers; the moneybags, decision-makers and influencers. Expressed in an extremely cliched way, the goal ought to be to facilitate d on the ground by changing the rules of the D game. This makes sense to me. Gathering and influencing activists and local champions is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for real change. Unless those determining the overarching policy environment for localised development work are willing to change their fixed ways, there can can be little progress. At the same time, this workshop definitely missed a trick by not having participants from governments (I am sure they considered this long and hard), which in many middle income countries have come to be all of the above – the moneybags, policy/decision-maker,etc. This is also the way DDD will be able to go beyond aid.
  2. DDD is not new: Much of the conversation was about familiar themes: participation, logframes, being locally embedded, stakeholder analyses, decentralisation, etc; neither are the champions (think-tanks, academics, NGOs and donors) a new species in development. But that shouldn’t be a dampener – we can never have too many good ideas. What will be interesting to follow is the contours of the coalitions DDD is able to draw up; how members find support with and from each other; and eventually, how this shapes the D game. What is new for these actors possibly is some of the language – which references the strategies used by private sector players.   
  3. But, DDD is damn hard and risky: There are plenty of enemies out there – the rigid project structures, the business cases, the impatient donor desk officer, the weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Attempting DDD comes with its risks and in most jobs in the development world (with the possible exception of research-y ones), it is unclear if the rewards at the end of the tunnel outweigh the numerous manholes on the way. So why would anyone try out DDD? And if they did, how will they muster up the personal/institutional capital to do so? For how long can one fight the establishment?
  4. Therefore, be smart:Thinking and Working Politically; Politically Smart, Locally Led – all of these arguably are only a difference of semantics compared to DDD. Creating space within the aid establishment requires forming alliances. Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or the Government of Bihar (once upon a time), I have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for DDD. Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and agreed that it is at the root of many problems, but also encouraged us to think of ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities, perhaps. Some of the younger participants (and I will include myself in this group) found it difficult at times to agree that the “project” is the problem – so thoroughly trained we all are in the mainstream development model. For us then, the idea of finding room for manoeuvre sounds that much more attractive, although that might mean that the revolution will be delayed.
  5. PDIA is not a model (I checked with Matt!) – rather, PDIA is one of the ways of DDD and falls within that tent. I wondered about the abuse of the term PDIA, i.e, if PDIA gets ‘mainstreamed’, everyone and their nephew will produce case studies that mimic the essential ingredients of PDIA. This has happened with ‘participation’ – at one point, everything everywhere was participatory and local. Many a stick was handed over just in time for a telling picture or a stirring case study. Important then, to find a balance between a large inclusive camp and an intellectually elitist one. This is a balance every movement has to strike and in the spirit of PDIA, continually revisit over its lifetime. However, it is important to anticipate this challenge. That the World Bank is so enthusiastic about it should make them wary already – its as clear a sign as any that PDIA and DDD are well on their way to being ‘mainstreamed’. But then, remember the ‘top table’ argument – that is the high stakes DDD game. Also, hopefully, the DDD tribe will ensure that DDD doesn’t get confined to a single model – not a Payment by Results (PbR) one; nor an Embedded Technical Assistance (ETA) one. We truly need to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
  6. DDD is spreading! – The principles of DDD are finding their ways into many donor RfPs. Those proposing projects are being forced to regurgitate the jargon, hopefully in ways that make sense. Do I see donors reaching out to their partners and contractors to make sure they ‘get’ it? Not as much as I would like.

All of this is very exciting. Getting deeper into this has implications for everything: in our personal lives as much as in our professional ones; in how we do and learn. Will stay tuned.

NGOs, dont back off – be more political

In my latest livemint column, I argue that NGOs need to be far more political than they currently are, if they wish to really serve the communities they work with. Malicious political masters and their misguided tools such as the IB should not be allowed to dictate the choice of strategies on the ground.

While every organisation must face questions – both from the inside and outside – about its mode of functioning, the response to these questions should be aimed at improving organisational performance

It is easy to brand NGOs as utopian or Luddite as opponents struggle with their conception of public interest. What gives an NGO the legitimacy to pick a particular issue over another? Why is it water and not housing; or watershed development and not skills training; gender equality and not income generation? In making these choices, NGOs either use their own narrative about the situation on the ground, or allow themselves to be driven by needs expressed by communities. One can argue for or against either approach. It is also fair to argue that NGO activity that focuses purely on mounting pressure on the state neglects many immediate needs that communities face and therefore, ignores potential fixes to those problems. It should be evident to anyone who thinks through this that depending on the issue at hand and the context, these are all legitimate questions that must be asked of organisations that are supposedly working in public interest.

In defence of the National Advisory Council

My latest livemint column is up today
The National Advisory Council (NAC) is often papered with criticism from many quarters. Some of the unfavourable terms used to describe it are: extra-constitutional body, a vehicle for populist agendas, kitchen cabinet, etc. In spite of all this criticism, I believe that a body such as NAC serves an important purpose and deserves to carry on, even if that doesn’t suit some sections of policymakers and analysts.
The NAC exists to provide inputs in the ‘formulation of policy by the government’ and bring a ‘special focus on social policy and the rights of the disadvantaged groups’. The council’s unique influence naturally is down to the fact that it is headed by the ruling Congress party’s president Sonia Gandhi—a fact that also leaves it susceptible to political attacks. A quick review of its members’ credentials would reveal that the council comprises almost wholly of people who are active in the ‘social development’ and ‘justice and rights’ space; but they are also activists, academics, former bureaucrats or from the industry. Some of the recent NAC interventions have been the Food Security Bill and Universal Health Coverage, while their previous recommendations shaped big schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). It has also been active in making regular recommendations to the government on improvements to the Right to Education, strengthening panchayats in tribal areas, livelihoods of small-holder farmers, development of the North East, rights of the disabled, etc.
One complaint against NAC is that it comprises individuals from civil society who do not enjoy the legitimacy of electoral representation. It is true that the NAC members are not elected, but this does not devalue the role of the NAC members’ suggestions that contribute to drafting pro-poor legislation. In many ways, NAC could just be one of the many task forces that the Prime Minister patronizes or those that exist in the Planning Commission, all of which are also ‘extra-constitutional bodies’.
Some energy has also been spent decrying the pre-legislative process suggested by NAC. The council is by no means suggesting a referendum on every proposed law. What it is asking for in fact is to widen the process of consultations, partly implying that the lawmaking process needs to open up to a group wider than NAC itself. In fact, as long as proposed laws go through the established systems of legislative passage, one can safely hold that NAC is not stepping on anyone’s toes in the lawmaking process.
Most of the criticism of NAC stems from the impression that it only advocates populist schemes that are wasteful and place a huge fiscal burden on the government exchequer.
Let us look at the existing subsidies. In the eleventh plan period, subsidies have accounted for over 15% of the total budgetary expenditure. Long-standing subsidies on food and fertilizer make up the lion’s share of these subsidies—ideas that pre-date NAC. In fact, one of the recent recommendations of NAC has been on improving the institutional capacity of the government administrative machinery in implementing its existing schemes. This is an area that requires inputs from those who have direct experience in the field and working with communities—and not just those of urban armchair economists and analysts. It is easy to forget that trapped between profit-mongering private enterprises and a lackadaisical government, it is the poor that have it the worst. There are thousands of crores that are spent in the name of the poor, but the leakages in the system mean that the benefits that actually reach them are scarce.
NAC is in the news once again as Aruna Roy, one of the leading civil society activists in the country, declined to renew her membership with the council. With a rich history of people’s movements and campaigns such as the Right to Information behind her, Aruna Roy represents a respected voice in our society. One of her chief contentions is that the government, in recent times, has switched its focus from empowerment of the poor and capacity building of local populations and local institutions, to easy technocratic solutions.
Now there are many arguments one can make, but it is undeniable that the recent push for Direct Benefits Transfer for instance has tended to ignore systemic threats to the effective and inclusive implementation of government schemes. How much importance we attribute to this view depends on where we stand with respect to these policy debates. However, stifling a voice that unequivocally speaks for the poor is no solution.
Finally, NAC recognizes that its interventions are only suggestions to the policymaking process of the government. NAC does not claim any powers over lawmaking or take away from the sovereign right of the Parliament to legislate. So why should NAC be scrapped? Is it because we are afraid of a lobby that is dedicated to the interests of the poor? Quite possibly, yes, and that is an unfortunate commentary on the state of our country today.

Naveen Patnaik’s eventful UK trip

Last week, word spread that Naveen Patnaik and his entourage were cancelling a talk at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex. There were about ten news articles on this and being an IDS alum, this caught my eye of course. Apparently, a couple of rights groups and students had decided to ask a few uncomfortable questions during the proposed talk.

Then there was a longer HT article that decried the air of secrecy that surrounded the Odisha CM’s meetings in the UK – not just with members of the UK government (which might be sort of understandable), but also with reearchers from IDS.

secrecy surrounds a meeting Patnaik had on Monday with researchers from Sussex University’s prestigious Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which is partly funded by DfID. After Patnaik cancelled a lecture at IDS, allegedly to avoid being questioned by activists and students, three researchers headed by the school’s director Lawrence Haddad, trooped into London to call on Patnaik.

“Two other researchers (apart form Haddad) who are experts on nutrition attended the meeting. I can’t provide you with their details,” said an IDS spokeswoman. “Nutrition was the main topic, and discussion also touched on education initiatives to keep girls in school and cash transfers to poor households. I won’t be able to provide you with any further information.” In an extraordinary act of secrecy, she refused to give the names of the two other researchers from the institute, which takes a keen interest in India and has programmes for Indian scholars and civil servants…

Its unfortunate that Naveen Patnaik chose not to take on the protestors and clarify his position. Odisha, in parts, does seem to be making a move on, although the government has been slow on dealing with mining licenses and rehabilitation and resettlement of affected communities. Large-scale development projects involve tough decisions, something the UK government seems to understand, going by their statements on the issue. At the same time, the rights groups have a right to engage governments in a debate and demand answers to their questions. I have to say, once again, that Naveen Patnaik should have been game for a open debate.

Second, did the Odisha CM feel cornered in the UK – a country that funds large-scale development projects in Orissa? Did this aid empower the rights groups to adopt a harsher tone with Odisha than they would normally? If yes (and I honestly don’t know if it was), what does that say about the power a donor country exerts over the recipients – not necessarily the hard power that the donor governments themselves exert, but the soft power exerted by other actors rooted in the donor country?

All in all, an eventful trip for the Odisha CM, which I think slipped from the news given the attempted coup that he had to rush home to quell. But this is just another instance of bad media and PR management by yet another prominent Indian political leader.

Also, here is the IDS Director Lawrence Haddad’s blog post on the issue