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Shyam Saran: Muddling along is no longer an option

The default approach to reform - minimalistic and confused - will lead India into crisis

Shyam Saran 

It is encouraging that the has undertaken an innovative exercise in scenario building for the country as part of the Approach to the The results are available in a document titled “Scenarios: Shaping India’s Future”, which can be found on the Planning Commission’s website. The merit of the document lies in the fact that it clearly spells out the domestic and external challenges that define India’s development space, as well as the choices we confront in leveraging our strengths and overcoming our weaknesses in order to emerge as a successful nation in the decade and more ahead. Some of these choices were explained in my column titled “A season of missed opportunities” (Business Standard, June 2012).

The document provides a rigorous and more detailed rationale for the plea the column made for embracing the “politics of empowerment” as against the prevailing and eventually self-defeating “politics of entitlement”. It would be worthwhile to disseminate scenarios widely in a language that is easy to grasp and generate a wide-ranging public debate over its contents.

The document envisions three different scenarios for India in the years ahead. These are: “Muddling through”, “Falling apart” and the “Flotilla advances”. Over the past several decades, India’s default position has been “muddling through”. It is the preferred choice for our governing elite, with significant policy departures occurring only episodically in response to crises. Hence the penchant for “reform through crisis”, as we are witnessing today, or “reform through stealth”, where change is sought to be slipped through, hoping no one will notice. Neither approach is likely to work for very long. This is because mobilising political consensus behind change is indispensable in a democracy. And, surely, change ought to be embraced in a positive expectation of better livelihoods rather than out of fear of “falling apart”.

If “muddling through” is hard-wired into our political and bureaucratic elites, how do we change this?

In a democracy, the politician will respond to public He will espouse policies that bring in votes and discard those that don’t. Logically, therefore, we must create a critical mass of compelling demand in the electorate favouring reform and a buy-in to what the document has put forward as a vision of the Indian flotilla advancing in relative harmony. The good news is that recent experience in several states tends to validate the proposition that can be vote-catching, transcending both anti-incumbency as well as lingering caste and parochial divides. in Bihar, in Madhya Pradesh and in Delhi are examples. Regrettably, national political parties, and sometimes the national leadership of these parties, are out of touch with the changing aspirations of the people of India – the youth in particular – and will end up paying the price for their myopia at the hustings.

It’s not enough to change the political calculus of political parties. The vast and entrenched instrument of governance, the Indian bureaucracy, must also be aligned with the reform agenda. This may be difficult, when much of the reform may involve its lighter and receding footprint and greater accountability. The current structure of incentives and disincentives that drives bureaucratic behaviour does not encourage innovative thinking and effective decision making. An act of commission that involves even a minor departure from the rules, or a less-than-successful result, may invite unwelcome penalties. Very rarely would an act of omission, even with a high opportunity cost of inaction, constitute a setback to one’s career. The prevailing system engenders a risk-averse, decision-deflecting mindset, which can frustrate any spirit of bold reform of a far-sighted political leadership. Without aligning career advancement with performance and capabilities, bureaucracy may become a drag on reform, when it could be transformed into its powerful engine.

The document brings home another important factor in successful nation-building in a rapidly transforming domestic and external environment. This is: a constant awareness that most of the challenges we confront today are cross-domain and cross-cutting in nature. The failure of our governance structures, indeed our societies, to comprehend this could lead to contradictory policies and failed strategies. We witness this in the energy sector, where different ministries, agencies and public and private sector entities adopt policies that mostly work at cross purposes and undermine our energy security. There is no energy ministry to take a comprehensive view and look at the energy challenge in an overall perspective. Nor is there an appreciation of how developments in other domains such as climate change or changing trends in power consumption impact energy security.

What is true of the energy sector is equally valid for other sectors such as agriculture, water and urban development. The old silo approach and the ordering of governance activities around the outdated Allocation of Business Rules will frustrate any attempt to fashion integrated, multidisciplinary approaches to current challenges. Ministerial or departmental turf battles, both in the public and private sectors, consume the energy required to fight the much larger battles the country is threatened with.

“Muddling through” is no longer a steady state phenomenon with minimal risk, as many of us seem to believe. It will, as surely as night follows day, lead us into the scenario of “Falling apart”, which the document has rightly warned against. In that perspective, the latest reform measures can only be a modest opening gambit. To sustain reform, a vigorous public debate is necessary, which will help evolve a broad political consensus on where India should be headed and what means are necessary to get there. These scenarios could be a good staring point for such a debate.


The writer, a former Foreign Secretary, is Chairman, RIS, and Senior Fellow, CPR

First Published: Wed, October 17 2012. 00:17 IST