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.


Why am I against Narendra Modi as Prime Minister?

Written originally eighteen months back, unsurprisingly, every word sounds true. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Fair enough I guess.


The debate around Narendra Modi has been quite toxic and no one will concede that the other is unbiased. I think we also forget that it is ok for us not to agree on each other’s political choices. In this post, I try to summarise why I am against Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister of my country. For me, the reasons for opposing Modi are compelling enough that I do not find him to be better by comparison to Rahul Gandhi or Mulayam Singh.

Let me try to explain why, and tackle some urban myths along the way:

On riots, people bring up 1984 to counter 2002, but given all the court proceedings and publicly available information, it is impossible for me to believe that Modi wasnt complicit (even if he just stood aside and let his supporters run riot). I also object to the fact that many of us now also casually ignore the belligerent attitudes of Modi and his aides towards groups that oppose them.

But Modi has been exonerated by the Special Investigation Team and other courts? I think we have many examples from contemporary history where court cases have been manipulated and elections have been won by stoking passions and polarising voters…where the victory is technically speaking, democratic, but raises plenty of unresolved questions. For a Modi supporter, a legal and electoral victory on paper is enough; for someone opposing, the manner of victory (on both fronts) is disturbing.

So do I think the Congress is secular? This is a fruitless debate and as I said, to call out something as objectively bad, I do not need relative standards. But to answer the question – Congress is opportunistic and so are parties like Samajwadi Party. This form of opportunism is perhaps worse than a stated right-wing xenophobic nationalistic position that the BJP and its fellow campers (Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, etc) have. But again, real political engagement for us citizens is in refusing to accept that our choices are confined to these.

But Modi always talks of ‘India first’: True, Modi’s speeches and interviews have been about his ‘6 crore Gujarati brothers and sisters’ and ‘India first’. If that is all you hear, you are cherry-picking. What about the countless jibes at Muslims? (Update: There is no sign of such statements abating, going by Modi’s campaign speeches in Bihar)

A ton of data out there suggests that Modi did not transform Gujarat. We ignore longitudinal data on Gujarat when it suits our argument. There is indeed no evidence to believe that Modi (or any non-UPA) government would have fared any better as far as India’s economic growth is concerned. I also disagree with the industrial policy that the Modi govt seems to follow because of its exclusionary nature and its tendency to promote a blind capitalist model where national resources are doled out for private gain and the voices of those affected are ignored (or suppressed). The data on poor development indices in Gujarat in spite of its economic growth only supports that argument. I am deeply uncomfortable that those that support Modi do not find these disturbing.

Add to all this, the coarse language in public; speeches and interviews that focus on personal attacks rather than details of his party’s agenda. I lament the loss of civility in our public discourse and although no political party escapes guilt for this, Modi stands out for his belligerence and consistently disrespectful demeanour.

I thought last week’s India TV chat-show was a disgrace – seemed like we were in the 16th century where the king had to be pleased by loud chants. I am not dismissing popular support or sentiment, but a studio audience is different from a crowd in a maidan. Also, from this unqualified adulation is born complacency, which we cannot afford with someone like Modi. (Update: the multiple stadium performances and carefully choreographed interviews by Amit Shah and Modi have only added to this discomfort)

Because of Modi, the discussion on the streets in the run-up to the 2014 polls has been xenophobic, with deep-seated prejudices coming out and people freely stereotyping ‘others’ that they do not understand. The positioning of the debate as between a state-led model of development and private enterprise-led model of development is entirely misleading. First of all, in a poor country like ours, the state cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of being the protector of rights and justice. Secondly, crony capitalism is good for no one – not even for private enterprises and only leads to rampant corruption. Third, Modi and BJP have been at least as populist as any other dispensation running their respective state governments.

Why hold Modi to a different standard than others? The answer to this is less clear in my mind. But it has something to do with the brazen personality, the personality cult that he is promoting, his tendency for hyperbole and appropriating credit for all things good in Gujarat and his proximity to a position of leadership that I care about. That is why, Modi matters more than Tytler or Kalmadi or Mulayam and Amit Shah matters more than Azam Khan. Also, from a careful reading of the data, it is clear that Modi is no miracle-man. In fact, in this federal polity, no one is. An authoritarian may have fantasies of being the one-man saviour of 1.2 billion people – but this is pure fantasy. It is important to also recognise how perceptions are created by the media and corporations in this day and age. The possibility of a Modi-run has sparked off a bull-run in our stock exchange. While it may be simplistic to say that a high performing stock exchange performance does not put food on the plate of the poor, it is true that the corporate weather-vane is not a good gauge of general prosperity in our country.

Am I (presumptuously) worried about the ‘idea of India’? No. Opposing Modi does not mean being scared that the nation is going to fall apart due to him. I agree that Modi doesn’t have that power, even if he sparks off intolerance and violence towards all opposition (religious minorities or otherwise). So we will not self-destruct if Modi comes to power; neither will we suddenly prosper. Same holds for a Third Front govt or at worst, UPA 3. Revival is going to take time. And while we wait, I guess the battle is about what each of us think are the acceptable compromises to make, and our preferences for who we want as leaders in the interim.

But Modi is a reformed man (and no riots in Gujarat for the last 12 years): If I think someone is morally culpable, the question for me is not about whether he will repeat himself, but about whether he has suffered the consequences of his action (or inaction). Giving him a chance to become the Prime Minister of my country – the effective head of state – is not an option. There are some cardinal sins in state-craft that one cannot be pardoned for.

Finally, there isn’t much reason to sympathise with BJP (and VHP and RSS) due to their ‘civilisational consciousness’ and claims on India’s history, heritage and future – but Modi seems to be dismantling the structures in a party that seemed to have some semblance of collective decisionmaking and inner-party democracy. The BJP prides itself for having a galaxy of successful administrators and strategists, butt is standing around reduced to a one-man party with a bunch of supplicants. This has caused visible cracks within the party, but the lure of power has held them together so far. But for how long? and what if they lose?

So who should you vote for? Vote for the best candidate in your constituency, because that is what our Parliament is meant to be – a set of public representatives who can ‘think national and act local’, as opposed to state legislature members who ‘think local and act local’. If we are lucky, the BJP will be forced to choose another candidate for the top job (if they get a shot at it). Irrespective of the outcome, the choices we make when voting increases our responsibility post the elections when a new government is in place. Irrespective of the government of the day, do not allow prejudice, intolerance and lack of compassion to guide your lives.

The man and the manifesto

Some observers are upset that the principal opposition party in India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has issued its election manifesto only on the morning of the first day of polling.

BJP’s spokespersons claimed that the party’s agenda has been the clearest among all political parties and has been articulated over and over in its prime ministerial candidateNarendra Modi’s rallies.

The most obvious reason for this delay perhaps was that Murli Manohar Joshi is the chief of BJP’s manifesto committee—the same gentleman who was eased out of his Varanasi seat to make way for Modi.

The first two names on the committee are that of Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha.

Singh stands expelled and it is not improbable that Sinha hasn’t taken very well this treatment of his old colleague. It’s conjecture, but the manifesto committee is in disarray. But I digress—the important question is, did the BJP need a manifesto for 2014, or was it better off without one?

You can argue that every political party contesting an election has to come out with its election manifesto. Whether the voter actually reads it or not, a manifesto is a declaration of intent—in economic policy, foreign policy, law and order, social welfare and other such important measures that we like to use to judge our political parties and our governments.

A promise in a manifesto is not legally enforcible, but is used by rivals and the civil society to hold political parties to account. The BJP recognises that only too well, having held out the six-year Vajpayee tenure essentially as its party’s promise of governance.

However, that of course has not been the focus of its election campaign this time around. The focus squarely has been on Modi.

The absence of a manifesto helped Modi to escape scrutiny on the details of his proposition for the top job and allowed him to contradict his party if required.

Delaying the release of an official manifesto allowed Modi a longer run, positioning himself as the man who does not play by the conventional rules of the game in Delhi, and he can declare his intention to invite foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, build hundred smart cities, twin cities and throw in MBA-ish frameworks such as P2G2, 5T, a ‘seven point rainbow’ etc—some of which now appear in BJP’s manifesto, but with no additional details of their implementation feasibility.

Let’s take a look at where the BJP manifesto takes us.

The preface lists India’s historical achievements, going as far back as the ‘several thousand years before the Christian era’ and talks about its international outreach in the pre-colonial era (and as expected, doesn’t mention the Mughals at all).

It goes on to lament the six decades of lost opportunity (and in particular, the last decade) and posits the six-year NDA rule as the only bright spot in India’s post-Independence period.

Wonder why the electorate thought otherwise in 2004 and again in 2009, then? But that’s a question the party doesn’t attempt to answer.

What follows is a series of proposals to tackle key concerns—many of them administrative, such as increasing use of technology, moving accountability measures such as time-bound service delivery, etc.

On the other hand, on issues such as criminalisation of politics, decentralisation, social justice, skill training, sanitation and even corruption, it rolls out proposals that are modified versions of what is on paper already.

On land acquisition, tribal issues and environment, some of the primary areas of concern with the policies and operations of Modi’s Gujarat government, the document has little to say.

The manifesto, in many ways, is a reality check—implementation is the primary bottleneck in our country today—and it grounds the hyperbole surrounding Modi’s high-pitched campaign.

The BJP is fighting a dual battle: on one hand is the image-problem on its secular credentials that it has, compounded by Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 riots; on the other hand is the promise of development it wants to hold out to the nation, a promise that is best kept vague and rhetorical.

For the BJP ought to know better than any other party, how limited the role of the central government is in this increasingly federal polity.

On this too, the manifesto has little to add to the current discourse, except creating national and regional councils and listening to states as equal partners. Its star chief ministers, including Modi, know only too well that the model that works in the states may not easily be replicated in New Delhi.

A manifesto that rehashes old ideas and stays faithful to its Hindutva roots does not fit with the ideal middle-class darling that Modi is seeking to become.

By delaying the release of its election manifesto, the BJP has got it absolutely right.

This election is not about what the BJP can or cannot do if it comes to power. It is a referendum on Narendra Modi–his past and our future–and for that, the nation needs no manifesto.

The federal roll-back

In my latest column for livemint, I highlight what I think was the most significant aspect of the 2014-15 union budget presented by Finance Minister, P Chidambaram. By announcing the intention to increase the plan assistance to states almost three-fold, the Government of India has made a major move towards empowering state governments and also towards holding them to account for their performance in areas of human development.

In this context, the following now become really critical.
The formula for distribution of funds between states: Not entirely unexpectedly, 2013 saw the war of committees over devising an appropriate funds distribution formula for states. Along with this comes the lobbying for special status by different states in order to gain additional central funds.
State treasury systems: In spite of some degree of automation, many state government treasuries are in bad shape. Earlier, state treasuries would capture only the state government funds and not the CSS funds that were channelled through the societies. In the new arrangement, the state treasuries will have to handle a significantly larger volume of funds and transactions. As public finance expert T.R. Raghunandan cautions us, the finance departments in many of our states have a long way to go.
Monitoring data: Unearthing government data—physical and financial—is a formidable challenge, as anyone in the business will reveal. Additional funding to the states will mean additional responsibility for data collection and reporting in a transparent and reliable manner.

Through the ‘Power lens’: why UPA remains a formidable force

Irrespective of all the economic and political disquiet, the ruling dispensation remains a formidable force – primarly due to its internal coherence regarding leadership.

Lets look back at Steven Lukes and his analysis of ‘power’. Lukes  introduced us to a three-dimensional view of power: a continuum in ways one can exercise power, ranging from coercion to agenda-control to manipulation or exercise of hidden power.

  • Coercion: This view focuses on how decisions are made when there are visible conflict of interests. Understanding the ‘exercise’ of power or ‘coercion’ is easiest in this case, where one prevails over the other in decision-making situations.
  • Agenda Control: This view considers the ways in which decisions are prevented from being taken on potential issues over which there is conflict, where the one in power can ‘decide what to decide’.
  • Hidden power: Lukes introduces this in his three-dimensional view that looks at “ways in which potential issues are kept out of politics, through social forces and institutional practices or through individual’s decisions” (Lukes, 2005). Thus Lukes suggests that power can control not only particular behaviors and preferences, but also the underlying wants, desires and interests

While the ruling family exercises real power, the opposition is still playing out its visible conflicts – and status quo prevails.

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

Lobbying: what our Parliament should learn from the US’ Senate

In this age of blatant lobbying,

The (US) Senate minority who last week blocked a vote on ending Big Oil subsidies received more than four times the oil and gas contributions than the 51 senators voting to end them. Exxon Mobil, the world’s most profitable corporation, has helped preserve these and other loopholes for oil and gas by building a Washington force tied intimately to conservative lawmakers, Steve Coll reports in this week’s New Yorker. The corporation relies on an algorithm to determine tiers of oil industry allies and sent 90 percent of contributions to Republicans last year

we are still bothered about cash-for-questions and personal endorsements?

We really need to reform our parliamentary system…learn from the greatest democracy of the world?