Why everyone loves ‘good governance’

Democracy without politics and citizenship without rights are the twin pillars of ‘good governance’.

Updated - April 03, 2016 04:05 am IST

Published - July 06, 2015 12:59 am IST

India is in the throes of a fierce passion for governance. Not just any governance but ‘maximum governance’; preferably in a combo with ‘minimum government’. We are the only country in the world that officially celebrates Christmas as ‘Good Governance Day’. Nobody speaks of the need for a good government anymore – only good governance.

Behind this mass enthusiasm for the virtues of ‘good governance’ is none other than the prime minister himself. His own >website says so: “It is due to Narendra Modi that governance has become the talking point all over the country; from the conversations teenagers have over a cup of coffee to heated debated in newsrooms.”

While the degree to which adolescents obsess about good governance may be a matter of debate, there is no doubt that it occupies pride of place in the publicity spiels of the >Modi regime — so much so that it’s now a truism that the Modi mandate of the 2014 polls is “a mandate for good governance” (http://tinyurl.com/pwyotg2)

But what exactly does ‘good governance’ mean? According to Mr. Modi, “good governance is putting people at the centre of the development process”.

Well, if that is what it is, then some obvious questions pop up, such as: Is it good governance to eliminate the need for people’s consent in land acquisition, as the NDA’s land bill amendments want to do?

Mr. Modi has also said that good governance must be ‘pro-people’ and ‘pro-active’. If so, then is pro-actively cutting public expenditure on health and education, as has been done in this year’s budget, good governance? Or, for that matter, is the dilution of the rights of industrial workers, which is what the proposed labour reforms seek to do, good governance?

The short answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. For the long answer, we need to visit the history of the concept of governance itself, and how it has come to occupy such a central place in development discourse.

A brief history of ‘governance’

The term ‘governance’ was first used — in the sense in which it is deployed today — by the World Bank in a 1989 report on African economies. Trying to account for the failure of its Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), the World Bank put the blame on a “crisis of governance.”

But ‘crisis of governance’ doesn’t convey much unless one defines ‘governance’. The World Bank initially defined it simply as “the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs”. This early definition is quite indicative of the animating logic and future discursive career of governance: it is silent on the legitimacy or otherwise of the political power in question. So whether the Bank’s client was a democracy or a dictatorship didn’t matter. What mattered for governance is that efficient management must trump politics. Efficient management, just to be clear, means the withdrawal of the state in favour of the market.

Over the years, the World Bank expanded its ‘governance’ model to include elements of a liberal democracy, such as a legal framework for enforcement of contracts, accountability, etc. At the same time, it brokered a marriage between governance and development. Nations deemed to be in need of ‘development’ could now be told that the only way to get ‘development’ is through ‘governance’ — that is, by embracing the free market.

But for this, it was necessary to first create a demand for good governance. That meant identifying the markers of ‘bad governance’. Unfortunately, what constitutes ‘bad governance’ in the neo-liberal text book — an activist state trying to even out socio-economic disparities through distributive justice — is rather popular among the masses, especially the poor. In an electoral democracy, a direct attack on welfare was never going to resonate beyond the rich and middle-classes, as successive governments in India have found to their cost.

Corruption and governance

Enter corruption, the godfather of good governance. ‘Corruption’ is not an ahistorical, value-neutral descriptor. Even in the short span of India’s post-independence history, it has been deployed in different ways in the service of different political agendas. Matthew Jenkins, a historian of corruption, has written about how, for instance, in JP Narayan’s movement for ‘total revolution’ in the 1970s, corruption denoted something very different from what it did in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation of 2011.

For Narayan, corruption was a moral evil. As Jenkins puts it, Narayan “viewed the capitalist system itself as corrupt”. He cites Narayan’s famous quote that “wealth cannot be amassed except by exploitation.” But the anti-corruption discourse that grew around the Hazare movement did not share Narayan’s reservations about the corrupting influences of the profit motive. Corruption as a morally charged idea had disappeared altogether. What replaced it was a narrow, technical idea of corruption as bribery, which went well with the economistic notion of man as a rational agent who responds to incentives.

Overnight, the entire political class, the bureaucracy, and social infrastructure (such as the public distribution system, for instance), began to be deemed as hotbeds of corruption and held solely responsible for the state’s failures to deliver the benefits of economic growth. Conversely, any government engaged in the delivery of socially critical economic goods was held to be offering incentives for corruption.

In other words, it is not neo-liberal economic polices but corruption that is to blame for the benefits of economic growth not trickling down — or not trickling down enough — to the masses.

Now that corruption had been identified as the biggest hurdle to economic development, the stage was set for its antidote: good governance. This trajectory – of aspirations first raised and then betrayed by economic reforms, leading to mass discontent, which zeroes in on corruption as the problem, with good governance presented as the solution – is very evident in recent Indian history. But it is by no means unique to India. As Jenkins points out, the “international anti-corruption consensus” has been a powerful vehicle for manoeuvring recalcitrant nations onto the neo-liberal track.

With the UPA II regime showing no signs of progress on the second wave of economic reforms, the demon of corruption was summoned to boot it out. And in its place, we now have the NDA, which is good governance incarnate, and invested with the mandate to roll out the next phase of reforms that its predecessor could not.

Elements of good governance

So, what’s definitely out is welfare expenditure, for not only is it a bad idea economically, it also represents what everyone hates – corruption. Also out is political interference in policy-making – which can lead to distortions to please vote banks. Major policy measures shall be decided by unelected experts, who don’t have to worry about winning the next election.

What’s in are accountability, transparency, empowerment, and citizen participation – all of which are key elements of Mr. Modi’s ‘good governance’ agenda. On the face of it, these don’t seem like bad ideas. But like development, they all have a dual meaning – one in the context of social transformation, another in the neo-liberal vision of good governance.

So if we take, for instance, accountability, good governance doesn’t mean accountability to the people – it is about accountability to business and to investors, who are risking their money with expectations in return.

Similarly, transparency doesn’t necessarily mean that the state should render its decision-making transparent to its citizens — if that were the case, a regime going gaga over good governance wouldn’t have kept the post of Chief Information Commissioner vacant for nine months. Again, the transparency in question is with regard to business, especially foreign investors, who are tired of trying to find their way through the intricate webs of political patronage (also known as corruption) and often lose out to domestic capital, which enjoys a cultural advantage (so-called crony capitalism).

As for empowerment, the good governance version of it, which imagines the state giving power to the disempowered, say, through technology (e-governance, m-governance), is a cruel joke on the original meaning of the term.

In human history, there has never been an instance of a powerful political group voluntarily giving up its power. Which is why real empowerment is always an outcome of political confrontation and struggle – the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and all other rights-based movements are examples of attempts to empower people through the institution of legally enforceable rights. The good governance model of empowerment is allergic to any rights-based empowerment. It conceives of empowerment in individualistic-consumerist rather than collective terms. It offers little scope, for instance, to remedy the social disempowerment caused by caste.

Finally, we come to citizen participation. In social movements, citizenship was a powerful tool for obtaining political and economic rights for the marginalised, such as refugees, or the displaced. But in the good governance model, citizenship essentially means ‘market citizenship’ – the individual’s acquisition of the legal and other paraphernalia required for accessing the market.

Participation means participation in the market – as a wage-earner, consumer, producer. It could also mean participation in the limited domain of project implementation, which serves the purpose of conferring a sheen of democratic legitimacy on development projects decided and designed by an elite. It certainly does not mean participation in the sense of political contestation – of having a say on the model of development to be adopted.

To sum up, good governance is today a major discursive tool enabling the global transition of democracies to a form of government that some academics have labelled “soft authoritarianism”. A more accurate description would be “authoritarianism with a democratic face”.

Good governance entails the substitution of politics – which is what democracy is all about — with management. It seeks to insulate policy-making from the chaotic pressures of democracy.

So what kind of a government does good governance mandate? Given that there is only one model of development possible in the good governance framework – market-led development – a government that upholds good governance will have to cease being a guarantor of the citizens’ socio-economic rights. It would instead function as a facilitator and enabler of the market, which would deliver these goods and services to those who can afford them.

As for those who can’t afford them, if they behave well, they might get the carrot of cash/credit, which is essential to function as a market citizen. If they misbehave, the stick of repression is an ever-present threat. Democracy without politics, and citizenship without rights — these are the twin pillars of good governance as it’s advocated today. The beauty of it is that everyone seems to love it.


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