November 1, 2012The Intersectionpublic policy

Reconnecting with the republic

When it comes to the challenges of public policy though, it is a hard slog, a marathon where connecting outcomes to one’s actions is incredibly difficult.

Mint This is an op-ed essay I wrote for Mint

India has problems. India is solving them. The problems, however, are growing at a faster pace than the attempted solutions. While it is hugely inspiring to see individuals, corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities tackle the most acute problems in our public space, often against tremendous adversity, a calm, dispassionate look suggests that the only agency that has the scale, capability, legitimacy and mandate to tackle them is the government.

Yet we have a government that is barely competent in performing the most basic tasks: ensuring the rule of law, a clean environment, drinking water, quality roads, electricity, and so on. If we apply some thought, we can track down many of our most complex problems to the Indian republic’s inability to deliver basic public goods to its citizens, and Indian society’s failure to demand them.

Failure to demand them? Don’t we shout out exactly this from our drawing rooms, residents’ welfare associations, newspaper columns and television channels? Yes, we do, but to the extent that this vociferousness is detached from our electoral politics—the Great Indian Decision-making System—it will remain marginally effective. It is an urban middle-class myth that democracy is not working for India. It is working satisfactorily for those Indians who participate in the democracy—by voting. Of course, it does not work for citizens who do not engage politicians, prevent them from campaigning in their apartment blocks and prefer to take a long weekend break instead of queuing up for a couple of hours to vote.

We could afford this because Middle India could afford to secede from the Republic of India. So what if the government can’t provide decent schools, water and electricity? We’ll just send our children to private schools, get 20-litre containers of packaged water and install generators. So what if the police are ineffective in keeping our streets safe? We’ll hire private security guards who’ll shut the gate as we whizz through anarchic public roads in the safety of our cars. You don’t need to be rich to be able to do this—it’s within reach of the middle-class family.

All this is far easier than having to demand this of a politician, who comes from a different strata of society, doesn’t quite speak the same language as you do, and is a crook anyway”.

No longer. We are already at a stage where public services have deteriorated to such an extent that privately-arranged solutions just won’t work. We can no longer expect to survive the chaos in the public zone between the first-world oases that we call offices, shopping malls and homes.

We must fix our public spaces. And apart from emigration, we do not have a choice in the matter.

The good news is that there has been a wellspring of awareness, activism and outrage against bad governance in Middle India over the last couple of years, which has found expression as a backlash against corruption in high places. This great churning can result in the extraction of the metaphorical amrit (nectar) only if we reconnect with democratic politics and transform it for the 21st century. It is no use just lamenting that we do not have election debates like in the US. We must make it happen.

How? First, through greater political engagement. Voting is necessary but not sufficient. Supporting politicians and political parties—by talking to them, by providing them the expertise and skills that they need and yes, by donating clean money to party funds. How many of those who complain that India doesn’t have US-style presidential debates also complain that Indians do not do US-style political donations? If politicians have to rely on dubious sources for their activities, should we be surprised that their activities are frequently dubious? India needs electoral reforms to improve the governance of political parties. These reforms will become much more likely when party donors want to make the parties more accountable to them.

Second, we must support the creation of platforms for informed discourse on public policy matters: forums that can take good ideas and connect them to the right people with the right resources. It does not matter if they are ideological, partisan or otherwise. We need them all so that there is more choice in the marketplace of policy ideas. Why is this important? Because awareness and activism often target only the symptoms—attacking the underlying malaise requires analysis and persuasion.

This is only a partial to-do list but, I believe, one that gets to the crux of how we can get out of the deep rut we are in. Indians are generous. Our generosity, however, tends to be focused on the micro, the direct and the tangible—we often support organizations performing valuable social services. It is easier to see results in the short term and feel the satisfaction of having done good.

When it comes to the challenges of public policy though, it is a hard slog, a marathon where connecting outcomes to one’s actions is incredibly difficult. It is perhaps because of this that we do not adequately support political and policy-related initiatives.

Yet, if India’s solutions must scale as fast as its problems, if the acute governance deficit must be bridged, if the energies of the innumerable NGOs and individuals have to be utilized effectively and if our generosities must achieve their fullest potential, then it is imperative that we reconnect with politics and public policy.

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