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Updated: June 4, 2013 17:27 IST

Too old to be bold

Govindan Nair
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Public Policy and Politics in India
Public Policy and Politics in India

For a book published in 2013 on public policy and politics in India by a scholar of the eminence of Professor Kuldip Mathur to carry no mention of such phenomena as “policy paralysis”, parliamentary stalemate, civil society awakening or media pressure is, to put it euphemistically, surprising. That in a book centred on public policy processes and institutions there is but a passing reference to the National Advisory Committee, little discussion of the imperatives of coalition politics, and that the only allusion to the Comptroller and Auditor General is to its relative ineffectiveness, is all the more perplexing. Perhaps this is inevitable in a compilation of disparate essays penned over a span of two decades.

In his preface, Mathur rationalises that the essays do not constitute an “inclusive account of how public policies are crafted in India”, adding that they may be repetitive and selective. Remarking on the neglect of studies of policy processes in India and ostensibly attempting to fill the gap, the book, however, fails to satiate. A comprehensive introductory essay could have drawn together the threads of the varied articles in the book and held up a mirror to today’s public policy discourse, but the introduction is itself a decade-old monograph.

Mathur theorises that policy in India is still essentially the product of a closed system. In the early years after independence, public policy was driven unquestioningly by the ‘Nehruvian consensus’ predicated on rational economic and technocratic criteria, with only a few surviving Gandhians raising feeble objections. Political and public intervention in policy discourse largely concerned implementation, the evident shortcomings of which were blamed squarely on the bureaucracy. Nehru is said to have admitted that his biggest failure as prime minister was reform of the administration that continued to be colonial. So much so that in subsequent decades, the democratic struggle was focused mainly on making the government more responsive to its citizens.

Research institutions

The early decades saw the establishment of a plethora of state institutions for studies and research — and ostensibly for policy inputs. Their impact on public policy was, however, circumscribed by the fact that their access to policy making levels of government was via obstructionist bureaucrats whose prime interest was to defend their turf against systemic change. Confronted by a colonial civil service system “firmly entrenched in its own interest”, Mathur says “strong, alternate policy advice struggles to be heard”. “Bureaucrats have emerged as a powerful component of the decision-making process, largely because the political establishment was only too happy to abdicate its responsibility”.

Discussing the shift from “government to governance” starting in the mid-1980s, Mathur expounds on the growing policy-making role of networks involving the state, civil society and the market. In the process of transformation, the state was seen as the problem and the effort of the liberalisers and privatisers was to create an enabling state, a facilitator for promotion of the market. The cosy, opaque relationship led to an impression “that networks are cases of privatisation by ‘stealth’ and the bargains have been, in general, more favourable to corporate interests” seeking to “embellish their own power and resources”. Pointing out that the “dense” network of interests needs deeper investigation, Mathur asserts that “there is plenty of evidence to show that both political as well as bureaucratic leadership has been comfortable in taking personal advantages and benefits that liberalisation policies have offered”. With the blurring of boundaries between public and private sectors, and resultant crony capitalism, accountability for policy formulation, decision-making and execution has got obscured. It is increasingly left to the courts and civil society organisations to raise issues of financial probity and administrative responsibility.

Strong State

Mathur argues rightly that the notion of a strong state should not be equated to strong or autonomous bureaucracy. “What is required is consent for policies pursued and legitimacy for mobilising resources needed for future investments”, necessitating strengthening of institutions of democracy that foster debate and negotiation. In our increasingly fractious and mutinous democracy this is the prime challenge of the moment. This book would have benefited from a discussion of trends in our polity in the first dozen years of the new century, when the chickens of liberalisation have come home to roost, and their policy ramifications. How will parliamentary democracy deal with ochlocratic tendencies and public insistence on immediate solutions? How will consensual policies come to be formulated in a polity as fragmented as ours? Can the bureaucratic machine be reinvented?

These uncertainties do not find resolution in Mathur’s essays. Having set out to examine policy processes and the role of institutions — which has been competently handled in essays on formulation of the national policy on education, the battle for clean air in Delhi and parliament’s response to the drought of 1987 — Mathur’s book disappoints in side-stepping the critical concerns of today.

(Govindan Nair is a retired civil servant now based in Chennai)

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