Economics · Governance · Public Policy

Let us have Policy-Centric rather than Personality-Centric Political Discourse, Please!

Like all other governments, the Modi sarkar has obviously made a host of public policy decisions, the reactions to which have varied. However, it is a sad reality of our Indian democracy that shrill personality-centric rhetoric often takes preference over policy debates, which is why the absence of Rahul Gandhi (who demonstrated his sheer incompetence in his interview with Arnab Goswami before the national elections, though we might be getting to see a different avatar of his now), otherwise a matter that should have only concerned the Congress party for their leader not being seen in action for so long, and the people of his constituency (though I firmly believe that MPs should not be entrusted with only their legislative responsibility and not constituency development that should be left only to panchayats and municipalities, but that’s another story), attracted more attention than the absence of any ‘lokpal’ (in spite of the weak legislation to that effect jointly introduced by the Congress and the BJP, despite the BJP initially having supported Team Anna in its demand for a strong law, which it first backstabbed by refusing to make ‘lokayuktas’ constitutional bodies going back on its word, deliberately misinterpreting Article 253 of the Indian Constitution, and later by even agreeing on a weak lokpal bill not incorporating any of the points over which Anna broke his fast, and the bill has not been strengthened even after the BJP has come to power) or chief information commissioner of India (meant to monitor the historic RTI Act), or even the debate about the appointment of judges, which is sad especially given that the fall of the UPA justifiably had much to do with the lack of transparency and accountability in public life.

Also, I may clarify that my mentioning the doublespeak of the BJP on the ‘lokpal’ issue is not particularly to attack that party, for I do understand that it is not one particular party that is to blame, but politics, by its intrinsic nature, being a game of vested interests. As an article in The Economist, while referring to the work of political economist Buchanan, states-

“…we all still like our politics personal, despite lots of good evidence that changing the names on the doors doesn’t have a huge effect on outcomes. Public choice suggests that politicians are influenced by the incentives around them and aren’t simply members of a priestly class dedicated to advancement of the public interest. That, of course, means that swapping one set of politicians for another without changing the institutional incentives will have a minimal effect on governing behaviour. Not no effect, of course; different parties are in hock to different interest groups. But the op-ed pages of America overflow with demands that politician x behave better or party y pay less attention to interest group z. Ultimately, if you’re unhappy with the outcomes of political business as usual you need to reflect on and argue for reform of the underlying institutional, or constitutional, arrangement. That is a lesson from Buchanan.”

Indeed, Buchanan, through empirical evidence, was saying what Dahl, Schumpeter and for that matter, even Gandhi had also said in his book Hind Swaraj. Hence, political parties compete with each other, using more or less the same mechanisms to outdo each other. The AAP claims to, at least, in part, reform that “institutional or constitutional arrangement” in the context of corruption, thus changing the “incentives” for coming to power, but as the internal spat in the AAP demonstrated, personality ego clashes cannot be completely avoided in any human organization. The Right to Information Act, for instance, was a result of civil society pressure (in which Kejriwal, in his pre-politician days, had a great role and for which he won the Magsaysay Award), but we can still see that most political parties are reluctant to come under the purview of that legislation. Blind faith in one political leader or party over another is harmful, and we must be vigilant and open-minded.

While I do hope that the Modi sarkar fares much better on the front of transparency, no major scams were unearthed in the first few years of the tenure of UPA-I either, and no political leader deserves exemption from incisive public scrutiny in the context of policies owing to his powerful or witty oratory! In fact, as a Times of India article by Dipankar Gupta pointed out – “Party affiliations make the mind inflexible and reluctant to accept contrary facts.” Why should we, as citizens who are not members of any political party, have sworn allegiances to political parties or leaders rather than impartially evaluate them? It is completely hypocritical to rightly criticize the Congress for not appointing a strong lokpal but being silent on the BJP not doing the same thing (if one believes in corruption to be an issue, one should earnestly demand systemic changes, irrespective of whoever may be in power), it is hypocritical to rightly condemn the Congress for Section 66A of the IT Act, but not condemning the BJP that refused to repeal it (though the judiciary struck it down, as I had most humbly predicted it will), it is hypocritical to rightly condemn the Congress for blocking legislative debates in parliament, demanding resignations, now and not condemn the BJP for having done so earlier, it is hypocritical to condemn the Congress for not bringing back black money and to not condemn the BJP for dismissing its promise of doing so as a ‘jumla’, it is hypocritical to condemn the Congress for not declassifying the Netaji files and Henderson Brooks Report and not condemn the BJP, which has explicitly gone back on its promise to declassify them and is apparently playing cheap politics with the Netaji files  by way of selective leaks. We must choose parties to vote for based on policies, rather than blindly repose faith in any party and irrationally defend it, come what may.

The need of the hour is to make our political discourses more policy-centric than personality-centric. The media is much to blame for this wrong trend, for as Santosh Desai has pointed out in a Times of India blog

“…media tends to centralize issues for it needs a common national currency of protagonists and references to deal in. It looks to convert complexity into binaries, issues into people and perspectives into disagreements. It narrativises reality by threading together discrete events into a coherent storyline. It favours developments that can create a compelling narrative regardless of how important those might be. It hunts for symbols and metaphors, preferring those over more substantive dialogue.”

A column by Kanti Bajpai, shortly before the national election results, indeed made a very valid, hard-hitting point-

“The manifestos of the two major parties suggest both are agreed on a Goods and Services Tax (GST) and encouraging foreign investment. That is worth bringing to the attention of voters. Yet few in the media have bothered to do so. BJP’s opposition to allowing multibrand retailing and its espousal of simpler tax structures has had some mention. Can India repudiate its decision on multibrand retailing? How would foreign investors react to constant policy changes? And how should we simplify our tax structures?

Both parties want to do something for health. Congress wants to pass a right to health bill, increase health expenditures to 3% of GDP and create millions of jobs in that sector. How to define the right to health? How many rights-based bills can we work with (right to education, right to information, right to food)? Is 3% too much or too little, and what would we spend less on? What kinds of jobs does Congress want to create in health?

BJP wants to raise education expenditures to 6% of GDP, encourage online courses and boost vocational training. Is 6% affordable, what are the limitations of online learning and do we have the connectivity for it, and how to energise the moribund vocational sector?

Millions are migrating to towns and cities. Urban policy is therefore a huge challenge. Congress wants to build 100 urban clusters around older or emerging cities to take the pressure off existing conurbations. BJP wants to go further and create 100 completely new cities. Which way is better? Is either feasible given struggles around land rights, a new land acquisition bill and lack of supporting infrastructure?

Speaking of infrastructure, both parties want high-speed trains. Given the horrendous record of Indian railways in managing low-speed trains, how would we move to a different, more exacting system? High-speed trains require new tracks. That means dedicating a lot of land to the project. How will that be achieved when land is at such a premium? BJP thinks that we desperately need freight corridors, industrial corridors and a port-led development strategy. Has anyone weighed up what this would mean, how we would pay for it and where we would locate these installations?

We in India are obsessed with the most superficial, transitory and procedural elements of policy making and with quite a thin conception of democracy and good governance. We pat ourselves on the back for holding elections and over deep, elemental battles in our politics — the secularism debate, or human development versus growth-led development and a host of other relatively abstract, philosophical arguments. On the other hand, we shy away from hard-headed, rigorous engagement with everyday policy challenges.”

Take the current land acquisition debate, for example, in which pro-industry or pro-peasantry biases or political party biases have shrouded very many people’s opinions, rather than an incisive understanding of the provisions of the bill and the ordinance! In fact, as much as I love science and have, with a friend, even invented a cleansing agent yet to be patented, in this context, I do think that our education system places no emphasis on economics, that can produce more enlightened voters, but does compulsorily teach a whole lot of physics, chemistry and biology, much of which has no day-to-day relevance. And it is here that I would like to earnestly appeal that the platitude of policies or laws not being all that noteworthy but their meaningful implementation instead only being important, should be eradicated once and for all! If a law or policy is itself defective, the best of implementation cannot set things right, and we don’t always envisage the best of laws and policies, contrary to what we may imagine. Moreover, poor implementation can be solved primarily by having strong enforcement mechanisms in the form of institutional checks and balances written in the law or policy document, as I have discussed here in the context of the Right to Education Act (and yes, whining about supposedly declining moral standards without delving into possibly legitimate erosion of hierarchical authority or changes in the larger socioeconomic system is no solution to anything, and even Chanakya’s Arthashastra talks of institutional mechanisms as important for governance, rather than vague talk of morality, even back then)! This platitude has been a convenient justification for disinterest in legislative and executive matters for far too long. The result has been that “development” is largely a vague or abstract term mouthed by people lacking even a basic understanding of economics, and attempts have been made to reduce Indian political discourse to binaries like ‘less corrupt-more corrupt’, ‘charismatic-not charismatic’ and ‘communal-secular’ (the phrase ‘pseudo-secular’ in the context of minority appeasement is also important to this discourse, and just to clarify, I am a centrist opposed to any hate-mongering and violence against or special economic initiatives for majority or minority, and I support welfare schemes for the poor being completely blind to caste and religious identities, the way the PDS is, but even this government has launched minority-specific schemes, as you can see here and here), and rhetorical exchanges are seen as all-important, but real policy issues and our politicians’ creativity and intelligence or the lack of the same in dealing with them remain neglected, as Ghazala Wahab rightly points out in this beautifully written editorial, and genuine interest in public policy initiatives, leading to that being a yardstick to judge politicians and political parties (politicians who know nothing beyond rhetoric will also be compelled then to be productive in parliament), is actually the most effective way of sounding a death-knell to all identity-based politics.

In fact, speaking of identity-based politics too, there is a fear that has enveloped a section of Hindus to the effect that in the India of future generations, Muslims may outnumber Hindus, leading to the abandonment of a secular, democratic constitutional framework (by the way, secularism is important not only for the rights of religious minorities, but to prevent moral and religious policing of all citizens, which indeed threaten the very foundations of the civil liberties that underlie a democracy), making India an Islamic state like Pakistan, though there are Muslim-majority secular states like Turkey, Kazakhstan, Albania, Senegal and Burkina Faso, but they are indeed a minority of Muslim-majority countries, most of which do have theocratic constitutions, with the letter of the law discriminating against women and non-Muslims to varying degrees (though there are non-Muslims willing to still migrate to and live in some of those Islamic states like Malaysia and the Gulf countries), and many of them do not have a democratic setup or at least a stable democratic setup. Irrespective of the validity of this fear or the lack of it, even generally, overpopulation is a problem for India, and a large young population may not be an asset if they cannot be furnished food security, education, health care and employment. Indeed, there is even a sizable number of Hindus who do have many children, examples including the late VV Giri, the late Narasimha Rao, and even Lalu Prasad Yadav, and for that matter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the third of his parents’ six children. (To digress a bit, shortly after the horrendous riots in Gujarat in 2002, as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi ironically talked of “child-producing factories”, evidently referring to Muslims, and no rational person will buy the argument Modi presented to the SIT that he wasn’t referring to any community, and indeed, back then, his verbal attack on the then chief election commissioner JM Lyngdoh for Lyngdoh’s Christian faith very rightly drew condemnation from AB Vajpayee and MM Joshi; that said, I am not saying that his emergence as prime minister was owing to his Hindu extremist background, but rather owing to justifiable anti-UPA resentment, some developmental achievements by Modi in Gujarat, and Modi making an effort to demonstrate commitment to religious pluralism. Also, at least those who hail or refuse to condemn MA Jinnah, despite the Direct Action Day riots, and Yasin Malik, in spite of the anti-Hindu militancy in Kashmir, have no business to be judgmental of Modi becoming India’s prime minister.) And no, polygamy among Muslims is irrelevant, for four reproductive women would produce the number of children they would, whether married to one man or four different men, and going by census reports, Hindus  have been more polygamous than Muslims, though it has been illegal for Hindus for long, and has also been illegal for Muslims for some time now, given a Supreme Court verdict to that effect.

Rather than asking Hindus to have very many children, as the likes of Sakshi Maharaj have been engaging in and have been rightly slammed for even by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, an excellent solution has been suggested by an otherwise rather irrational and hate-mongering personality – Praveen Togadia, who has suggested a legal imposition of a two-child norm for all Indians, irrespective of religion, which can placate any fears of that section of Hindus, make them do away with their reservations about harmonious coexistence and the rule of law, and enable them to not blindly vote for supposedly Hindu rightist politicians without judging them based on their legislative competence or transparency (though I am not suggesting that that is Togadia’s intention), and will even generally help to curb India’s population explosion putting a strain on our resources. Intelligent public policies that are non-discriminatory in nature can be a solution, not divisive and hate-filled rhetorical politics. And other than that, all those Hindus with the faintest trace of anti-Muslim resentment are requested to peruse with an open mind (not skim through and judge based on one’s preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download, and all those Muslims with the faintest trace of anti-Hindu resentment are requested to peruse this article of mine. However, as much as I dislike condoning this, one shouldn’t allow one’s communal tendencies, if any, to allow oneself to blindly believe in any political leader to be above criticism (or even what one perceives as one’s aversion to communalism to not acknowledge the good work benefiting people, cutting across religious lines, some government engages in, such as the Modi sarkar introducing self-attestation of documents and simplifying licensing procedures), and I may point out that even in the context of foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan (something beyond the scope of this piece), the BJP hasn’t always shown the required toughness, while the undoubtedly secular Lal Bahadur Shastri did, though Manmohan Singh certainly did not.

Coming back to the point, for instance, are we aware of the provisions of the Road Transport and Safety Bill, over which there is a strike, or the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which the current dispensation is inclined to amend? What do the other parties say on these issues? Shouldn’t we, as responsible voters, keep ourselves updated on matters like these? Shouldn’t politicians, I repeat, be judged by the substance of their performance in legislative deliberations in the legislatures or their concrete work in the executive domain?

To the readers, I apologize if this piece made you feel uncomfortable, but discomfort is something we must be willing to bear if we impartially wish to ascertain the truth for ourselves.

So, before we talk about serious issues like land acquisition, education etc., do we decide to educate ourselves on government procedures and economic concerns, and vote on that basis? 

About the Author

Karmanye PicKarmanye Thadani is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. A lawyer by qualification, he has authored/co-authored four short books, namely ‘Anti-Muslim Prejudices in the Indian Context: Addressing and Dispelling Them’, ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms’, ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘The Right to Self-Determination of Pakistan’s Baloch: Can Balochistan Go the Kosovo Way?’. He has been involved in making an Urdu television serial on Maulana Azad, which has been condensed into a film ‘Aashiq-e-Vatan Maulana Azad’.

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