* Posted: Tue, Jan 25 2011. 8:43 PM IST
India's political hangover
Arresting institutional decline and reforming our political culture
are essential if the aspirations of Indians are to be met
Café Economics | Niranjan Rajadhyaksha
This was a curious month in international politics. One dictator fled
his country and another returned home after 24 years in exile.
The jasmine revolution in Tunisia eventually forced the despotic Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee in the face of peaceful street protests
against his regime. The brutal Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc, flew
back to a broken Haiti some 24 years after he was ousted from power. A
people fed up with repression forced out one autocrat and another
returned with hopes of winning the trust of a people he had
Also Read |Niranjan Rajadhyaksha's previous columns
At a time when India celebrates its 61st Republic Day against the
backdrop of popular angst and a drift in governance, we have to
realize how lucky we are to be living in a country with constitutional
values and the rule of the law, especially given the fact that many
international observers genuinely believed (and some hoped) that India
would either implode or sink into dictatorship after 1947.
These past few months have provided ample reason for worry and anger,
from corruption scandals to directionless policy. Ensuring that the
Indian state serves citizens and repairs its fractured legitimacy are
two big challenges over the next decade. The capacity of the state to
deliver public goods and maintain order also needs to be developed.
Manmohan Singh has often spoken about the need to reform governance
since he became prime minister in 2004; the time to act is now.
Here is an attempt to map out the challenges, based on data provided
by the World Economic Forum in its annual World Competitiveness
Report. The information provided in this publication on the quality of
institutions gives us a good idea about where we are doing well and
where urgent reform is necessary.
India does better or on a par with global averages in areas such as
protection of property rights, judicial independence, transparency in
government policy making, reliability of police services, efficacy of
the legal framework in settling disputes and efficiency of government
spending. We come out badly in other key areas such as diversion of
public funds, public trust in politicians, bribe taking and
favouritism in government decisions.
There is a pattern here. India does well in areas that have
independent institutions or clear rules, while we do very badly in
areas where there is bureaucratic discretion or political involvement.
It is the well-known divide between rules and discretion. This pattern
could give reformers a broad idea of how to go forward in governance
reforms: strengthen institutions and minimize discretion.
The way in which Indian companies adjusted to the new global economy
could offer some lessons. Most Indian companies were protected and
inefficient till the reforms of 1991. Important business leaders were
opposed to some of the more drastic reforms, but Indian companies soon
saw the writing on the wall and spent the 1990s reinventing
Many business groups took a close look at their portfolios and asked
tough questions about which areas they should focus on. Many units
were shut down or sold. Those that remained were made more efficient
thanks to tight financial controls and changes on the shop floor.
Indian industry eventually emerged stronger and more dynamic. A state
is more complex than a firm, but there are useful lessons here. The
Indian state could also do with many tough years of strategic
reorientation, re-engineering of processes and strong financial
Another good port of call is the detailed discussion in the
Constituent Assembly on the nature of the new republic. B.R. Ambedkar
had asked in a prophetic speech: "If we wish to maintain democracy,
not merely in form but also in fact, what must we do?"
Ambedkar offered three suggestions that remain relevant even today.
First, we have to stick to constitutional methods and abandon the path
of both bloody revolution and civil disobedience. Second, we have to
break out of the habit of political bhakti, or hero worship. Third,
our political democracy needs to be supplemented with social
Rajendra Prasad had said: "We have prepared a democratic constitution.
But successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness
to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and
These warnings have gone unheeded, which is one reason why we
sometimes seem like an illiberal republic. The glorification of
Kashmiri militants, Naxalite rebels and (more recently)terrorists on
the fringes of the Hindutva movement does not help matters either.
Yet, for all these faults, political bargaining continues to be done
within the constitutional framework and the ballot box still offers a
reasonable way to punish political leaders.
The role of violence and mob rule is increasing, however. Political
scientists have shown that violence becomes a more important method of
political expression when the quality of constitutional institutions
is poor. Arresting institutional decline and reforming our political
culture are essential if the aspirations of more than a billion
Indians are to be met.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is managing editor of Mint. Your comments are
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