|The reason why our solutions are non-solutions even if they seem to work for some time is simple: the design and institutional defects of Indian democracy have not been addressed, leaving the state with a poor capacity to enforce and execute.
By R Jagannathan
In its 70th year of independence, India is hurtling towards an unknown tryst with long-promised destiny in a way only Indians know how to: chaotically and frenetically. Driven by unfulfilled aspirations, excited by possibilities of upending the existing unequal social order through a million everyday mutinies, buffeted by global and technological changes that no one fully understands, this uncontrolled energy is propelled less by a clearly articulated vision of the future than by an optimistic belief that any change must be good.
Nothing illustrates this better than the dash for GST – a tax about which neither states nor Centre know the ultimate outcome. A coalition of poor, consuming states has convinced itself that it will gain revenues, and with the BJP government at the centre seeing GST as a feather in its reformist crown, the voices of its own doubting states, mainly Gujarat and Maharashtra, were stilled. The pain in implementing GST will come before the gain, but everyone is on board in a rush of hope over doubt.
Beyond economic reform, social tension is more apparent than national purpose. Kashmir valley is on the boil; the Jats of Haryana, the Patidars of Gujarat, and Dalits and Muslims everywhere are flexing their muscles. Muslims, once considered appendages of “secular” national and regional parties, are now backing parties of their own, just as Dalits and OBCs did in the post-Mandal phase. No political party can now claim the permanent loyalties of any community or group, as each one discovers its own powers of agency. The new sense of entitlement and empowerment is what creates hope for positive change.
But India has never been fertile soil for radical outcomes. Despite eruptions of public anger when things go wrong – often amplified by media outrage – the Indian voter has developed a new maturity, an understanding that political parties need time to deliver. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Indian states gave either their current incumbents, or the previous ones, at least two terms in power.
This is because our politicians are getting it: they know they have to deliver “something”, even if they are not sure what that needs to be. In the UPA years, that something was seen to be about delivering “rights” – MGNREGA for jobs, RTE for education, Food Security Act for hunger and malnutrition, and the Land Acquisition Act for delivering fair prices for compulsorily acquired land. In the states, that something has ranged from giving free laptops (in UP), to prohibition (in Kerala and Bihar), to low-priced food kitchens (in Tamil Nadu), to job reservations for various allegedly disadvantaged communities (Muslims here, Jats and Gujjars somewhere else).
The Narendra Modi government has, since mid-2014, taken the “do something” credo to its logical extreme, creating a whole host of schemes with grand titles (Make in India, Digital India, StartUp India, StandUp India, Jan DhanYojana, Swachh Bharat, Pahal and Uday, to name just a few).
But “do something” is reaching its limits, often delivering suboptimal or even negative results. The UPA’s efforts to deliver “rights-based” solutions have turned out to be non-solutions, as rights create demand, but don’t guarantee supply of the demanded good or service. The Right to Education, for example, has resulted in umpteen school closures and lower learning outcomes as it focuses on infrastructure, student-teacher ratios and salaries. MGNREGA has created boondoggles, not real jobs.
The reason why our solutions are non-solutions even if they seem to work for some time is simple: the design and institutional defects of Indian democracy have not been addressed, leaving the state with a poor capacity to enforce and execute.
Our first-past-the-post system ensures majorities with 30-35% of the vote; this means politicians prefer to work for some communities rather than everybody. They prefer giving specific benefits to identifiable groups, instead of public goods like law and order and universal education that benefit all.
We have an unreformed electoral funding system. We spend Rs 4,000-and-odd crore every five years to give each MP Rs 5 crore annually to spend on his or her constituency (under MPLADS), but we do not have state funding of elections that would cost much less than this and reduce incentives for corruption. We have a judiciary that is more interested in protecting its right to choose judges or how BCCI should be run than in improving the overall delivery of justice. We have a Constitution with a huge concurrent list, which sets Centre against states. Every bad law, from RTE to Land Acquisition and Food Security, emanates from this power diffusion.
The Constitution also protects minority rights and institutions, which has been interpreted to mean that majority institutions can be treated as personal property or a political football, whether it is the state administering temples or applying the civil code selectively. That a law should apply only to some and not others is the ultimate repudiation of the rule of law.
At the end of the seventh decade of freedom, the big picture of Indian democracy is that it is alive and kicking, and, despite occasional lapses into insanity, largely stable. What needs fixing is the plumbing – rewriting the letter and spirit of the Constitution to reflect current priorities, strengthening institutional autonomy, and devolving power even below the level of states to cities and local bodies, which is where true choice and democracy thrive. Without this, we will remain a weak state. A weak state cannot deliver, even if the spirit is strong and willing.