India may be among the world’s best-functioning economies currently, but it is far from clear that we are on our way to self-sustaining growth over the long term. If you were to ask economists, they will talk of the long, unfinished reforms agenda: factor markets, agriculture, markets, deregulation, etc.
However, while these are important, the critical factors holding India back from sustained high growth relate to reforms that are not directly connected to economics.
What we need are political, judicial, constitutional and other structural reforms without which no economy can outperform.
As India completes 75 years of independence, it is these areas that need addressing. Otherwise, Azaadi Ka Amrit Kaal will be little more than a slogan.
The first and most important reform relates to the judiciary and law enforcement.
Four things are of importance here: judicial independence with accountability; police and legal reforms; investment in training and technology for gathering better evidence in civil and criminal cases; and faster trials and judgments, again using new laws and technology.
This means judicial appointments must be taken out of the hands of the collegium; a separate body must be created to monitor judicial performance, investigate complaints against judges so that weeding out bad apples can happen without having to impeach them.
Police reform goes without saying, and it means two things: insulating them from political interference, and more forensic and other resources for investigating cases more efficiently.
The second reform we need is administrative.
The “steel frame” of the IAS is rusty, and no longer capable of doing its job. The IAS structure is rooted in a colonial-era culture that is unsuitable for a democracy.
Like every other field of human endeavour, at the higher levels, given the need for specialisation, we need more experts; at the middle and other implementation levels, we need officers and staff more responsive and accountable to the public who they are supposed to serve.
With some exceptions, the civil servant is neither civil nor a servant of the people. The induction of short-term appointees at the joint secretary level is a move in the right direction, but it will make no difference if the speed and quantum of induction continues at a glacial pace.
Just as the proverbial frog sitting in slowly heating water will fail to jump out in time and save itself, excessively slow reforms do no good. The system learns to neutralise the proposed change-makers by co-opting some and isolating the others. The administrative service needs serious disruption. We need to get a move on.
Third, and this is related to defence.
Like the police and administrative staff, defence is no longer about having a lot of bodies to hold territory, but about going hybrid, where war may not always be at the borders, but right inside our economies.
This means that defence needs more expertise in areas like technology, cyber defence and offence, use of robots and equipment to do the actual fighting, real-time propaganda capabilities (where Pakistan’s ISI seems to score over us), and a younger force.
Agniveer is one good move, but it needs to be implemented well and with lots of patience so that the short-term staff do no lose the motivation to serve. Also, as we move towards theatre commands, we need defence experts who know how to make different services work as one unit. Corporate M&A specialists are one area to tap for advice and consulting.
Fourth, constitutional reform.
We don’t need a 1.45 lakh words-plus constitution. It should be shorter and more focused, and draw from Indian social experience. The balance between rights and duties - articles 12 to 35 of the constitution deal with fundamental rights while article 51A deals with duties – is weak. There is no harmony and linkage.
Thus, to the best of one’s knowledge, while rights have been defended often in courts, duties have seldom been enforced, except whimsically.
For example, article 51A says “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India (a) to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national Flag and the National Anthem; (b) to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom…” - among many other duties. How will anyone ensure ideals that have not been properly defined in terms that an individual should understand?
Also, what is the tradeoff between rights and duties?
If dissent and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights, can one prosecute those who do not salute the national flag? Or will this have to be done purely through education and training?
In the US, and in India, courts have accepted the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to not salute the flag, since this would contradict their belief that salvation can only be through Jesus, and not the state or its emblems.
But what if, tomorrow, another community says that it does not recognise the Indian state or its emblems, and only believes in the Umma under Allah and the Prophet? What is needed is a linkage between some rights and duties. Also, once exceptions are made, why would anyone follow any prescribed duty?
Fifth, electoral reform.
India has a good election management system, but has been sadly lacking electoral reform. We get to choose our representatives without let or hindrance, but the outcome is less than optimal as indirect distortions of the electoral process continue.
If it is going to take over Rs 10 crore to elect a Lok Sabha member, what you are going to get is a boatload of mercenaries in parliament, not public service and change agents. The current brouhaha over freebies is one pointer to the direction of change: we cannot allow politicians to use taxpayer resources to re-elect themselves. This reform can only come if politically the major parties come to a consensus among themselves. The courts should not be involved.
The anti-defection law, too, does not work well; what it has ensured is a higher premium for defections, thus enhancing corruption at the margin. It has provided some political stability, but at a huge cost to the credibility of legislators.
At some point, we have to offer state funding of elections, so that good candidates have half a chance of being elected. Otherwise, the same corrupt lot, who can commandeer state resources and get themselves re-elected with illegally obtained resources, will keep returning to power.
Sixth, India’s major religions, broadly classifiable as Dharmic (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), and Abrahamic (Christianity and Islam), need reforms too – but reform means different things for the two systems.
Indic religions need to focus more on consolidation and growth, while Abrahamic religions need to focus less on expansion (i.e. conversions) by any means and more on inner spiritual development. An expansionist religion is as much a threat to social harmony and peace as a religion incapable of defending itself, as is often the case with diverse and cacophonic Hinduism.
Seventh, states and cities. India’s constitution allows for too much centralisation of power, at the Centre and State levels. The key to faster growth is empowerment of cities, which can draw talent from the hinterland and provide good jobs if they can only ensure good governance.
This can’t happen if urban areas are ruled by rural politicians, and even state governments are emasculated economically. The only way forward is for the Centre to reduce its role, empower states, and states must, in turn, empower urban areas and local government.
Constitutional amendments granting more powers to states should be contingent on the transfer of more powers to urban and non-urban local bodies.
Empowered cities, and states with enough elbow room to raise resources and initiate reforms that will create jobs, are what the doctor ordered. Right now, it is assumed that everything is the Centre’s responsibility – from inflation to jobs. Time to change that.
Economic reform is important, no doubt. But it is reform in the political, social, legal and other areas that will prove to be true accelerators of growth and prosperity.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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