How An Upgraded Indian State Would Look Like
As you read this, there are structures, processes and systems of governance in India that could do with a rethink, perhaps some tweaks, and in some cases, wholesale upgrades.
Most often, this column considers innovation in the conventional sense, of how an idea can be nurtured and brought to market in a way that it becomes successful commercially, offering significant value to users. Perhaps that could be called ‘petit’ innovation. There is also what one might term ‘grand’ innovation, wherein you make wholesale changes to systems of governance and processes, and these may have a long-term impact on a nation.
For example, take some political systems that appeared in the twentieth century: Soviet communism, fascism and Chinese communism. Each of these is a ‘grand innovation’, in that they intended to change the way the world worked. Importantly, they all had a ‘why’ attached to them: a rationale. Broadly speaking, Soviet communism purported to be about the release of the worker from the grip of feudalism; fascism about a return to the halcyon days of a nation’s mythical past; and Chinese communism about tianxia, the notion that the entire world should be vassals to the Chinese hegemon.
With varying degrees of success (and human misery), these grand innovations have influenced history. But correspondingly, they have led to systems of petit innovations as well: for instance the surveillance state was a corollary of all of them (and the Chinese have finally perfected it with their panopticon).
A more benign example of a petit innovation was the creation of ‘institutions of national importance’, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMs). These institutions are central universities beyond the grasping clutches of local politicians, and enjoy a substantial autonomy. That model of governance and the related (apparently unsullied) selection process has created a brand and a cohort of graduates. But there are two good questions: one, whether they created value for the nation commensurate with the investment, and two, whether their model has reached the end of its useful life.
As far as the IITs are concerned, I’d venture to say that the answers are no and yes. They did not create the flowering of research and development (R&D) that a major research university in the US (eg, Stanford, MIT, Caltech) has done, with the consequent clustering of leading-edge spin-off companies as in Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128. A large number of graduates left the country (and enriched Silicon Valley, etc), and quite a few moved to a management stream at once.
Therefore, perhaps their governance model needs to be tweaked. What can make for better outcomes? What is wrong with the model? Is it because there is a guaranteed supply of government money that they have no impetus to do industry consulting, or high-quality R&D and survive on the intellectual property right (IPR) generated? Should there be specific incentives tied to innovation, patents and startups to encourage faculty to take up entrepreneurship? These are ideas worth exploring.
Similarly, there are structures, processes and systems of governance around the country that could do with a rethink, perhaps some tweaks, and in some cases wholesale upgrades because of obsolescence. Just because they were created in 1947, it doesn’t mean they are the best systems possible; the environment, in particular technology, has changed so much that some of the original axioms no longer hold true. As another example, consider the leapfrogging technology that enabled India to go quickly to mobile and electronic payments: these could not even have been dreamt of in 1947.
Here, in no particular order, is a set of potential grand innovations in governance that could make the system more efficient. This is, of course, a subset of systems that need reconsideration. In many cases, it would be useful to consider good practices elsewhere that have been proven successful: why reinvent the wheel? Look at the US and China. Not Britain, practically on life-support: their governance (the one that has got them trapped in Brexit) is no longer worth emulating (if it ever was).
Revisiting The Election Cycle, And Other Electoral Reforms
The fact that the central government is constantly in election mode is a handicap for India. Neither the US president (safe for five years unless impeached, a very rare occurrence) nor the Chinese president (newly-ensconced for life) has to be constantly looking in the rear-view mirror. The Indian prime minister has to worry about no-confidence motions and the impact of state elections, and therefore has to be involved in peripheral, local issues in poll-bound states on an ongoing basis; and has little time for macro issues and global geo-politics.
There probably were good reasons in 1947 to stagger state and central elections, because the task of collecting votes may have been a tall order. But today, with electronic voting machines (EVMs), there is no reason why the data processing cannot be done quickly. Besides, the cost of continuously running elections can be avoided by having some structure.
One possible model is the one in the US, where state elections happen in parallel with national elections every four years, most obviously to elect their president. Two years later, the entire lower house, the House of Representatives, is elected, but the upper house has only a third of its seats up for grabs. Thus there is both continuity and change. The so-called ‘mid-term’ elections do act as a check on the unfettered power of the president.
An Indian system could be created on similar lines. Every five years, all members of the Lok Sabha will get elected, as they do now. But half the members of the Rajya Sabha will also get elected at the same time. Half the states will go to the polls as well. During the mid-term elections, two-and-half years later, the other half of the Rajya Sabha, and the other half of the states, will go to the polls. The Lok Sabha members will be, as they are now, elected every five years.
There are other possible reforms as well. There should be many more restrictions on the creation of many splinter parties. In addition, to discourage by-elections, there should be conditions placed: for instance, if the seat falls vacant because of death, no issue; if but it is because of other reasons, the individual who causes the by-election will be charged a hefty ‘election fee’.
It is a truism that constitutions get old and decrepit and obsolete, and the band-aid of amendments may no longer be enough. There have been occasional murmurs about this in the US, even though the country’s Constitution is by and large considered quite good. Any number of other countries have also rewritten their constitutions, but somehow in India people find it hard to accept that ours could possibly (gasp!) be fallible.
In fact, there is good reason to suggest that the Indian Constitution is quite fallible. Here are several issues (by no means a comprehensive list):
- It seems to be a mish-mash of information from too many sources, and a cut-and-paste job with no local context. It has elements from the Irish, the American, the (unwritten) British, and every other constitutional source imaginable
- The framers of the Constitution seem to have imagined that they could foresee all future eventualities; and they wrote down elaborate solutions to all of them. Obviously, they could not anticipate the world as we have it today. Therefore, a simplified constitution is preferable that asserts the principles and thereafter leaves it to the Supreme Court to implement. That would be flexible enough to last a long time
- It is too long at more than 500 pages. Written in dense legalese, it cannot be digested by a normal person. As a corollary of the ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ philosophy of the framers, there is just far too much detail in that can easily be dispensed with. The US Constitution is some 10 pages long, and every child in school reads it. India needs something less prolix than the current version
- Most seriously, it does not seem to take its own protestations about equality seriously. Articles 25 to 30 explicitly declare that all people are not equal. There may have been some reason at the time to provide sops to religious minorities, but over time, these clauses have been interpreted to actively oppress the majority Hindus. This must be the only Constitution in the world that expressly discriminates against the majority (unless apartheid South Africa had a constitution). Many constitutions discriminate against minorities, but India’s has been twisted to actively hurt the majority. This also applies to the bizarre provision of separate civil codes for different groups of people, a guaranteed source of friction and separatism.
My friend Atanu Dey, an economist in the US, wrote a draft of a sensible (and short) new constitution for India. It is four pages long, and even a layman can read and understand it completely. This is the kind of constitution we need to consider. It is a roadmap for a developed society.
The Supreme Court
Among the various pillars of the state, the judiciary is in many ways the most exalted, because the average citizen views it as his last resort in case of wrongdoing by the executive or the legislature. The Supreme Court of India is seen as a major disappointment, because in effect, it is perceived as having been captured by special interests, both political and social.
I wrote in Swarajya May 2018 issue (“Can we fix the deeply troubled judiciary?”) about the problems and what might be done. It is indubitable that the judicial system needs reform, but various pressure-groups like it the way it is. Some issues:
- Structure. The Supreme Court should hear constitutional cases, and nothing but. Everything else should be sent to lower courts. This implies there has to be central courts of appeal, for things that exceed the ambit of state high courts or have a Union-wide impact, but are not constitutional: and that is a large plurality of the cases today. Five of these courts should be set up, one in each region, and all Supreme Court judges must be rotated to them, to avoid them getting too Delhi-centric. Central court of appeal judges can become a natural pool from which Supreme Court judges are chosen in future. The US system of Federal District Courts may provide a useful model.
- Delays. The case backlog of millions is a travesty of justice. Many cases take decades; many litigants die before they get closure. There aren’t enough judges; and so more should be appointed and night courts should be mandated to use the facilities efficiently. Intentional delays are used as a tactic by many trial lawyers; there should be strict goals imposed on judges regarding completion of trials. A few ex-parte decisions going against delinquent, absent parties will send a message.
- Selection of judges. The current mechanism of a cosy clique that apparently chooses future judges based on nepotism and connections, and packs the courts, needs to be dismantled. In particular, Supreme Court judges need to be confirmed by Parliament after a ruthless public hearing (as in the US). A first step would be to bring back the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). A transparent national judicial exam can also be used to hire judges.
- Public interest litigations (PILs). This mechanism, of filing PILs directly in the Supreme Court, has now become the most abused shortcut for motivated activists to get the results they want through lobbying and using the power of the Lutyens media. It is an unprecedented folly that no other court in the world allows. This must stop. All PILs must be required to be filed at the district court level, so that the impact on the locals can be gauged before it vends it way up through the appeal process to the high courts or the central courts of appeal.
The so-called ‘Steel Frame’ of the nation is turning out to be a handicap, because the bureaucracy was originally intended to wring the life-blood out of a conquered population. That is why the district administrator is called a ‘collector’, a collector of insane and punitive taxes. The Indian state has accepted this system in its entirety, and the bureaucrats think the public is a mere nuisance that prevents them from enjoying the perks of their cushy sinecures.
Doubtless some clever people get into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and so on, but the entire environment is so colonial that even well-meaning babus seldom get to do anything useful. Besides, there are temptations because they have the power to favour certain companies for contracts, or certain people by enforcing or not enforcing laws.
In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew built a system wherein the most talented youngsters like to go into the bureaucracy, and their salary is as high as the chiefs of multinational companies in the country; but the penalties for corruption are also very high. It is not clear that such a system is feasible in India, but surely babudom is well paid enough so that corruption issues can be tackled without driving away aspirants. Especially if entire ministries and departments are shut down and the bloated bureaucracy reduced by some 30 per cent, as various pay commissions have recommended.
In addition, a protocol has evolved such that generalists end up running all the departments where specialised knowledge may be helpful. In particular, the IAS, the most generalist of all, get all the plum postings, which is a matter of heartburn for the less glamorous services, such as the railways, postal, economic, information, etc services.
One way around this would be to create mechanisms whereby either Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Indian Engineering Services (IES), etc staff, or, more interestingly, lateral-entry domain experts are brought in from industry or academia on levels equivalent to senior babus for specified periods of time. There have been one or two experiments along these lines. I remember someone from TCS was brought into NITI Aayog on sabbatical. But another experiment where there was an advertisement for people coming in laterally at the joint secretary level has stalled: doubtless the ‘Yes, Minister’ (as in the BBC show) type babus have scuttled it.
In addition, the pure seniority-based system of promotions needs to be dropped. Performance metrics and key result areas (KRAs) should be developed and imposed with clinical efficiency so that laggards can be identified. Yes, there will be a certain subjectivity, but the seniority system is hardly objective: it merely encourages ‘Parkinson’s Law’.
The Parliamentary System
I must confess that I used to think politicians were the biggest problem for India. I am no longer so sure, after the excesses of the judiciary began to come out, and of course the media’s antics. I ran a twitter poll and was astonished to find that out of say a thousand respondents, half blamed the judiciary, and a quarter the bureaucracy. Media came next, and only then politicians.
Nevertheless, whether India’s politicians are the best sort to take India ahead is an open question. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, once pointed out that American politicians were mostly lawyers, where Chinese were mostly engineers. Adams implied that engineers worked with ruthless efficiency, which is exactly what the Chinese have done. Said Scott: “Now I see the Chinese are beginning to get lawyer politicians. Thank God! China is doomed!”
That made me cringe, because India’s politicians are predominantly lawyers. Maybe we are doomed too, because lawyers never actually create anything, with due respect. They are like investment bankers, who push money around. Lawyers redistribute things, and this is pretty much what India’s parliamentarians do: represent various special interests.
I also had the complaint that India’s is a Potemkin democracy, something that has form but no substance behind it. I pointed out in May 2013 on rediff.com, “The great Indian rope trick and other illusions”, that Indians were satisfied with the illusion of progress, not necessarily the real thing. Similarly, we were happy with something that looked like a parliamentary democracy, but wasn’t really. I suggested that in fact what we had was a “hereditary feudal monarchy with a large set of court-jesters and other hangers-on”.
I quote Patrick French’s 2011 finding that fully 100 per cent of the Congress members of Parliament under 35 were sons or daughters of some senior Congress leader. Truly a hereditary ruling class. The 2014 elections produced a somewhat better result. And it shows. This Lok Sabha has produced a lot more useful legislation.
Perhaps, Parliament doesn’t need too much tinkering, except for the election timing reform referred to above. Strange, isn’t it? Everything else is so much more messed up that our politicians begin to look like winners!
Even though this is not part of governance per se, the media, the so-called fourth estate, does have a role in nation-building. India’s media has abdicated that responsibility, and has become either partisan, or ideologically blinkered, or beholden to some moneybags abroad.
With the rash of fake news, and the future prospect of “deep fakes”, video fakes that are indistinguishable from the real thing, the power of the media to distort will only increase, and so will that of social media. It will be necessary to put stringent controls on Indian media, which is often borderline seditious. Similarly, with the tremendously hostile foreign media, as I wrote in Swarajya in July 2018, “When It Comes to India, Most Expatriate Journalists Exhibit an Inherent Racism”.
Finally, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). India is infested with NGOs, and has the highest density of NGOs/1,000 population. A lot of them are genuine, but quite a few are fronts for all sorts of vested interests, and in effect some are agents of foreign powers, and they wreak havoc especially through PILs in the Supreme Court. They need to be kept on a tight leash, and the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licences that were removed from a number of them is a good first step, but it’s not enough.
As in many other areas, India needs to innovate in governance as well. India’s problems are often unique and different; the wholesale adoption of foreign (say Western or Chinese) models of governance may not be at all appropriate for the country. As in economics and politics, India has striven to tread a middle path, it should do the same in governance as well, and that is one of the features of the emerging Indian grand narrative.
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