It’s not about the ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, but about ‘power’

In our theatres of war, brought to us live on primetime television and on social media, we are presented with a rampant muscular ‘Right’ taking on an anti-national ‘Left’. But if you look closely, you will realise that the political and social conflicts that are being tagged as “Right vs Left” have almost nothing to do with the labels being used for them.

For instance, muscular nationalism today seems to belong to the ‘Right’, while all forms of dissent that makes the government see red denotes the ‘Left’, although this is not really the case if you consider Cold War-era communist regimes and their remnants. When it comes to society and culture, conservatives are ‘Right’ while progressives are the ‘Left. On matters relating to the economy though, free-marketers and innovators are on the ‘Right’, while those favouring state intervention are on the ‘Left’. Yet, India’s right-wingers rarely seems to mind a government that continues to expand its mandate, something that Communists (or the leftists) have been justifiably accused of.

Essentially then, what we are witnessing around us is a pure play for power – power that extends into the lives of people. Researchers have studied ‘power’ extensively: Steven Lukes in his seminal work, Power: A Radical View, 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. Others, such as Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller have termed the different forms Visible Power, Hidden Power and Invisible Power.

Coercion or visible power is fairly easily understood (and visible) as the exercise of power where one prevails over another by force, where the more powerful can simply over-rule decisions made or sought to be made by the others. Where one’s view is imposed on another through outrightly overruling the latter, or use of violence, it is clearly coercive power at work. For instance, when the Government of India launched demonetisation last year, it effectively expanded the realm of its ‘coercive’ powers, demonstrating that the government could subject its citizens to mindless “inconvenience” at will. The more recent spate of violence and murders in the name of the cow is nothing else, but a means to intimidate Muslims, and coerce them to accept the RSS narrative of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Not surprisingly, the Emergency of 1975, (most prominently, the media censorship and the mass sterilisation camps) is the other stellar example of the state’s coercive power at work.

The second form of power, or ‘Agenda Control’ is 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’. There are elements of ‘coercion’ in this approach, but more importantly, the ability to set the rules of the game. For instance, the government of the day can decide whether to or not to debate a particular issue in Parliament. The manner in which Finance Bill amendments were railroaded through Parliament earlier this year reflected the manner in which the BJP now commands the power to ‘decide what to decide’. Rajiv Gandhi’s use of his brute Parliamentary majority to overturn the judiciary in the Shah Bano case in 1986 is another example that comes to mind.

The third form of power is the one that Lukes called Hidden Power, and VeneKlasen and Miller called Invisible Power. The most insidious form in which power is exercised, this is the “ways in which potential issues are kept out of politics, through social forces and institutional practices or through individual’s decisions”. Through a process of socialisation and normalisation, this form of power controls not only particular behaviours and preferences, but also underlying wants, desires and interests. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (talking in the context of gender relations) explain how power works when those who are at the receiving end adapt and accept a hegemonic relationship with the ‘powerful’.

By all accounts, this sounds like real power. The exercise of such power is a long-term process, the kind that is initiated by altering textbooks, control of key political battlefields such as universities, subtle advertisement campaigns, and strategic use of ‘dog-whistle’ politics. It is the kind of power the Communist parties wielded in the past, and the kind that RSS and BJP are seeking to capture now. The nationalism debates that seek to establish that there is only one political party that stands up for the nation are clear efforts in that direction. Sycophants chanting “India is India” and “Making of Developed India” are one and the same. Those who wield such power, use it to support and justify acts of coercive power. Violence against political opponents under the Communists or RSS, and the terror unleashed by gau-rakshaks are both backed by those seeking long-term domination through the exercise of hidden power.

It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other – never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.


A slightly different version of this first apeared on Pragati


Enforcing accountability in decision-making

This is a joint post with Heather and the sixth and last post in the series on decisionmaking, continuing from the last one


A recent episode reminded us of why we began this series of posts, of which is this is the last. We recently saw our guiding scenario for this series play out: a donor was funding a pilot project accompanied by a rigorous evaluation, which was intended to inform further funding decisions.

In this specific episode, a group of donors discussed an on-going pilot programme in Country X, part of which was evaluated using a randomized-control trial. The full results and analyses were not yet in; the preliminary results, marginally significant, suggested that there ought to be a larger pilot taking into account lessons learnt.

Along with X’s government, the donors decided to scale-up. The donors secured a significant funding contribution from the Government of X — before the evaluation yielded results. Indeed, securing government funding for the scale-up and a few innovations in the operational model had already given this project a sort-of superstar status, in the eyes of both the donor as well as the government. It appeared the donors in question had committed to the government that the pilot would be scaled-up before the results were in. Moreover, a little inquiry revealed that the donors did not have clear benchmarks or decision-criteria going into the pilot about key impacts and magnitudes — that is, the types of evidence and results — that would inform whether to take the project forward.

There was evidence (at least it was on the way) and there was a decision but it is not clear how they were linked or how one informed the other.

Reminder: scenario

We started this series of posts by admitting the limited role evidence plays in decision-making — even when an agency commissions evidence specifically to inform a decision. The above episode illustrates this, as well as the complex and, sometimes, messy way that (some) agencies, like (some) donors, approach decision-making. We have suggested that, given that resources to improve welfare are scarcer than needs, this approach to decision-making is troubling at best and irresponsible at worst. Note that it is the lack of expectations and a plan for decision-making that are troublesome as the limited use of outcome and impact evidence.

In response to this type of decision-making, we have had two guiding goals in this series of posts. First, are there ways to design evaluations that will make the resultant outcomes more useable and useful (link to posts 1 & 2)? Second, given all the factors that influence decisions, including evidence, can the decision-making process be made more fair and consistent across time and space?

To address the second question, we have drawn primarily on the work of Norm Daniels, to consider whether and how decisions can be made through a fair, deliberative process that, under certain conditions, can generate outcomes that a wide range of stakeholders can accept as ‘fair’.

Daniels suggests that achieving four key criteria, these “certain conditions” for fair deliberation can be met, including deliberation about which programs to scale after receiving rigorous evidence and other forms of politically relevant feedback.

Closing the loop: enforceability

So far, we have reviewed three of these conditions: relevant reasons, publicity, and revisibility. In this post, we examine the final condition, enforceability (or regulation).

Meeting the enforceability criterion means providing mechanisms to ensure that the processes set by the other criteria are adhered to. This is, of course, easier said than done. In particular, it is unclear who should do the enforcing.*

We identify two key questions about enforcement:

First, should enforcement be external to or strictly internal to the funding and decision-making agency?

Second, should enforcement rely on top-down or bottom-up mechanisms?

Underlying these questions is a more basic, normative question: In which country should these mechanisms reside — the donor or the recipient? The difficulty of answer this question is compounded by the fact that many donors are not nation-states.

We don’t have clear answers to these questions, which themselves likely need to be subjected to a fair, deliberative process. Here, we lay out some of our own internal debates on two key questions, in hopes that they point to topics for productive conversation.

Should enforcement of agency decision making be internal or external to the agency?

This is a normative question but it links with a positive one: can we rely on donors to self-regulate when it comes to adopted decision-making criteria and transparency commitments?

Internal, self-regulation is the most common model we see around us, in the form of internal commitments such as multi-year strategies, requests for funds made to the treasury, etc. In addition, most agencies have an internal but-independent ‘results’ or ‘evaluation’ cell, intended to make sure that M&E is carried out. In the case of DFID for instance, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) seems to have a significant impact on DFID’s policies and programming. It also empowers the British parliament to hold DFID to account over a variety of funding decisions, as well as future strategy.

Outside the agency, oversight and enforcement of achieving relevancy, transparency, and revisibility could come from multiple sources. From above, it could be a multi-lateral agency/agreement or a global INGO, similar to a Publish What You Pay(?). Laterally, the government in which a programme is being piloted could play an enforcing role. Finally, oversight and enforcement could come from below, through citizens or civic society organisations, both in donor and recipient countries. This brings us to our next question.

Should enforcement come top-down or bottom-up?

While this question could be answered about internal agency functioning and hierarchy, we focus on the potential for external enforcement from one direction or the other. And, again, the question is a normative one but there are positive aspects related to capacity to monitor and capacity to enforce.

Enforcement from ‘above’ could come through multilateral agencies or through multi- or bi-lateral agreements. One possible external mechanisms is where more than one donor come together to make a conditional funding pledge to a programme – contingent on the achievement of pre-determined targets. However, as we infer from the opening example, it is important that such commitments should be based on a clear vision of success, not just on political imperatives or project visibility.

Enforcement from below can come from citizens in donor and/or recipient countries, including through CSOs and the media. One way in which to introduce bottom-up pressure is if donors adhere to the steps we have covered in our previous posts – agreement on relevant reasons, transparency and revisibility – and thereby involve a variety of external stakeholders, including media, citizens, CSOs. These can contribute to a mechanism where there is pressure from the ground on donors in living up to their own commitments.

Media is obviously a very important player in these times. Extensive media reporting of donor commitments is a strong mechanism for informing and involving citizens – in both donor and recipient countries; media is also relevant to helping citizens understand limits and how decisions are made in face of resource constraints.

Our gut feeling though is that in the current system of global aid and development, the most workable approach will probably include a mixture of formal top-down and informal bottom-up pressure. From a country-ownership point of view, we feel that recipient country decision-makers should have a (strong) role to play here (more than they seem to have currently), as well as citizens in those countries.

However, bilateral donors, will probably continue to be more accountable to their own citizens (directly and via representative legislatures) and, therefore, a key task is to consider how to bolster their capacity to ensure ‘accountability for reasonableness’ in the use of evidence and decision-making more generally. At the same time multilateral donors may have more flexibility to consider other means of enforcement, since they don’t have a narrow constituency of citizens and politicians to be answerable to. However, we worry that the prominent multilateral agencies we know are also bloated bureaucracies with unclear chains of accountability (as well as a typical sense of self-perpetuation).

While there is no clear blueprint for moving forward, we hope the above debate has gone a small step towards asking the right questions.

In sum

In this final post, we have considered how to enforce decision-making and priority-setting processes that are ideally informed by rigorous and relevant evidence but also, more importantly, in line with principles of fairness and accountability for reasonableness. These are not fully evident in the episode that opened this post.

Through this series of posts, we have considered how planning for decision-making can help in the production of more useful evidence and can set up processes to make fairer decisions. For the latter, we have relied on Norm Daniel’s framework for ensuring ‘accountability for reasonableness’ in decision-making. This is, of course, only one guide to decision-making, but one that we have found useful in broaching questions of not only how decisions are made but how they should be made.

In it, Daniels proposes that deliberative processes should be based on relevant reasons and commitments to transparency and revisibility that are set ex ante to the decision-point. We have focused specifically on decision-making relating to continuing, scaling, altering, or scrapping pilot programs, particularly those for which putatively informative evidence has been commissioned.

We hope that through these posts, we have been able to make a case for designing evaluations to generate evidence useful decision-making as well as for facilitating fair, deliberative processes for decision-making that can take account of evidence generated. At the very least, we hope that evaluators will recognise the importance of a fair process and will not stymie them in the pursuit of the perfect research design.

*In Daniels’s work, which primarily focuses on national or large private health insurance plans, the regulative role of the state is clear. In cases of global development, involving several states and agencies, governance and regulation become less clear. Noting this lack of clarity in global governance is hardly a new point; however, the idea of needing to enforce the conditions of fair processes and accountability for reasonableness provides a concrete example of the problem.

Secularism and political opportunism

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has another thought-provoking piece in the Indian Express, on the idea of secularism. Important points made – of how secularism for the state cannot merely be argued on the basis of personal virtues. As Mehta concludes – the fight over secularism, fought between Rahul, Modi and Nitish are nothing much to write home about –

Between opportunist cant and ineffable virtue, the institutional foundations of the idea long disappeared. Which is why the three-cornered fight over secularism seems a contest between the shallow, the hollow and the callow

Important also, for problematising the issue of Narendra Modi (in my opinion, not necessarily what Mehta implies in his column). The point is that 2002 or 1984 are not the ultimate determinants, it is the institutions that our polity has created and in turn, the behaviour of these institutions when faced with issues that test the philosophical idea of secularism.

You might ask the question: which government has gone by its rajdharma in the face of imminent riots? Even the redoubtable Tarun Gogoi seems to have a difficult time preventing the largest internal displacement of Muslims. Here the record turns out to be mixed. The Congress’s legendary inaction for four days during the Mumbai riots, documented by the Srikrishna Commission, is up there in the abdication of rajdharma. And how can we certify that Narayan Rane or Chhagan Bhujbal’s change of heart was more genuine than that of any other lapsed secularist who professes now to be secular? Are Muslims less likely to be targeted for being who they are in terrorist investigations or riots in Congress-ruled states? The evidence from Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan suggests not. Then there is the question of how close you have to be to communal forces to vitiate your secular credentials. Why does the fact that NDA allies did not pressure Vajpayee more forcefully to act against Modi not count against them on the secular question?

The answer then is perhaps the most obvious one – the battle over secularism is just political opportunism – the battle for the moral high ground. Beyond the question of vote-banks, there is an attempt to position oneself as ideologically virtuous in the theater of national politics. Clearly, secularism was meant to be much more than just this.

A possibly controversial observation here – a partial explanation for Modi’s popularity among the urban youth and business leaders is the fatigue from this recurrent hypocrisy of the so-called secularists. But these secularists may yet have the last laugh – they know that those who actually come out to vote care enough about the personal virtues (and collective virtues of the political parties) that appear before them in 2014…

What CEOs want

Adi Godrej: Activate the cabinet committee on investments to take quick decisions to clear the large number of projects held up for one reason or the other
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: A cabinet committee on investments to fast-track large projects
Chanda Kochchar: improve the investment climate and for that you need to clarify the approach towards access to land, natural resources and approach towards environmental clearances. If we bring clarity there, we can improve investment climate in general
Naina Lal Kidwai: The new land Bill has been passed by the cabinet. Industry has some apprehensions with regard to the land Bill and we hope that its concerns will be taken on board and that it will be reviewed. The process of land acquisition also needs to be fast-tracked

All attacking the land bill one way or the other. All CEOs; all want to fast-track. Is there for those displaced/affected?

Murky land deals in Haryana

Its partly amusing when public perception (not necessarily knowledge) is proven right. This article in The Hindu today investigates the murky land deals in Haryana, particularly in and around Gurgaon, where my office is one of the many located in shiny glass buildings

Last week, Business Standard reported that the 3.53-acre plot of land in Manesar whose purchase in January 2008 marked the entry of Mr. Vadra into the real estate business belonged to a company whose owner, Satyanand Yajee, is a long-standing associate of Mr. Hooda. If the regulatory filings made by Mr. Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality, are correct, Mr. Yajee was a benevolent seller. He did not cash the cheque he received from Mr. Vadra until after the latter obtained a licence changing the plot’s land use to commercial and sold it to DLF for a hefty profit — something no property dealer would normally do.
Congress spokespersons were at pains to deny favouritism by the State government in the speedy grant of the Manesar licence to Mr. Vadra and they are correct. Skylight is not the only beneficiary of official help: It turns out that Mr. Hooda, who took office in March 2005, has allocated licences to over 350 real estate firms of all sizes, most of which were unknown or had no experience whatsoever in property development.
Of the total 20,549.63 acres that were licensed, 7,733.68 acres were in Gurgaon, 2,266.91 acres in Faridabad and 10,569.37 acres in the rest of Haryana. Commercial land use accounted for 984.83 acres, group housing 5,867.99 acres, and plots 13,303.51 acres. Surprisingly, Information Technology projects accounted for a mere 409.21 acres.

Loving the new investigative The Hindu, by the way!

Local governance under attack

My latest livemint article is up – on how local governments are under attack – day in and day out from an entrenched bureaucracy –

Recently a small news item mentioned a ruling by the Additional Collector, Yavatmal district, sacking 664 Gram Panchayat members from various Panchayats for failing to construct a toilet in their homes. While this could be seen as a strike for total sanitation, a possibly inadvertent consequence could also be that this is yet another assault on the move towards true decentralization of power in India

More here 

The politics of globally published data: looking at World Bank data on China

Useful reading for anyone using data put out by international agencies

Statistics prepared by international agencies are valued because they are considered accurate and reliable. But are they? Two stories about World Bank statistics tell us how the data it compiles are vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties. National and international statistical offices always operate in the tension between professional standards of objectivity and political insistence on certain results. The political economy of statistics needs to become a serious field of study. 

This the summary of Robert Wade’s short article in the EPWAcceding to a Chinese demand, the US government offers World Bank data on a platter. The author concludes –  

National and international statistical offices always operate in the tension between professional standards of objectivity and political insistence on certain results. Whenever a measure is used as a performance target, those who measure are vulnerable to this tension. As the Chinese proverb says, “Officials make the figures, and the figures make the officials”.