Dec 12, 2021 • 19M

#151 The Wrong Kind Of Convergence

The party state. Lateral entry into government. The good and bad of great stories

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy and politics. This feed is an audio narration by Ad Auris based on the 'Anticipating the Unintended' newsletter, a free weekly publication with 7000+ subscribers.
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India Policy Watch #1: Imitating The Enemy

Insights on burning policy issues in India


Pranay made an interesting point in the last edition on how India should avoid mimicking China if it were to position itself as a counter to them. The core idea was we often fall into the trap of behaving like our ‘enemy’ when we compete with them. This hurts our long term interests. I was thinking about it in the context of Indian politics and how often this has turned out to be true. A classic instance of this is West Bengal where the TMC ousted the Left, then picked up their playbook of party capture of the state and did one better on them. Even the BJP that never missed an opportunity to talk about ‘high command’ culture and lack of cooperative federalism when the Congress was in power, now runs a highly centralised government of two, with a powerful PMO. On the other hand, Congress and AAP have gone down the path of what’s called soft Hindutva as they try to keep pace with the BJP. The interesting, and somewhat, ominous thing to note here is none of these parties tries to emulate features that could further liberal democracy. The incentives for winning power and retaining it supports only imitating the bad ideas in the short run.

The ‘Party State’

This is what worries me as I see the coalescing of the opposition forces in the run-up to 2024. It is not the differences between the BJP and the opposition, in the shape of TMC and others, that's important. Those differences on secularism or the definition of nationalism will be used for narrative wars that will continue to deepen the schism in the society. But I don’t see them changing how India will be governed. It is the similarity, where the ‘enemies’ emulate each other that has me worried. 

And what’s the similarity? To put it simply, it is their belief in running a ‘party state’ model of governance. What the Left built in West Bengal and the TMC inherited has now been finessed and taken at the national level by the BJP. The party or its affiliates have their imprint everywhere. The law of the party trumps rule of law. Examples abound. The cancellation of stand-up comic shows by the state because it cannot guarantee law and order when the party protests is but one example. You might argue this was always the case in India. Maybe it was. But this time it’s different because the party and its membership aren’t as diverse ideologically as it was during the time when the Congress was a hegemon. More importantly, the party this time is much more disciplined than the others in the past. So, where’s the problem? Well, anyone competing with the BJP will mimic its model in the unlikely event of unseating them from power. The Indian polity has converged to this model now. To clarify, by party state, I don’t mean a single-party rule. That will be difficult to pull off even in India when there's a brute electoral majority as we have seen in the past. The Party-state is a bit different. 

In his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell defined ‘three realms’ - economic, polity and culture - that constitute modern society. These realms run on contrary principles. As Bell wrote:

“The argument elaborated in this book is that the three realms— the economy, the polity, and the culture—are ruled by contrary axial principles: for the economy, efficiency; for the polity, equality; and for the culture, self-realization (or self-gratification).”

He elaborated it further:

“Now, the technical-economic realm, which became central in the beginning of capitalism, is, like all industrial societies today, based on the axial principle of economizing: the effort to achieve efficiency through the breakdown of all activities into the smallest components of unit cost, as defined by the systems of financial accounting. The axial structure, based on specialization and hierarchy, is one of bureaucratic coordination. Necessarily, individuals are treated not as persons but as ‘things’ (in sociological jargon their behavior is regulated by the role requirements), as instruments to maximize profit. In short, individuals are dissolved into their function.

The political realm, which regulates conflict, is governed by the axial principle of equality: equality before the law, equal civil rights, and, most recently, the claims of equal social and economic rights. Because these claims become translated into entitlements, the political order increasingly intervenes in the economic and social realms (in the affairs of corporations, universities, and hospitals), in order to redress the positions and rewards generated in the society by the economic system. The axial structure of the polity is representation, and, more recently, participation. And the demands for participation, as a principle, now are carried over into all other realms of the society. The tensions between bureaucracy and equality frame the social conflicts of the day.

Finally, the cultural realm is one of self-expression and self gratification. It is anti-institutional and antinomian in that the individual is taken to be the measure of satisfaction, and his feelings, sentiments, and judgments, not some objective standard of quality and value, determine the worth of cultural objects. At its most blatant, this sentiment asks of a poem, a play, or a painting, not whether it is good or meretricious, but "What does it do for me?" In this democratization of culture, every individual, understandably, seeks to realize his full "potential," and so the individual "self" comes increasingly into conflict with the role requirements of the technical-economic order.”

This Party Won’t End Well

In a liberal democracy, the state tries to reconcile these forces with different political parties taking positions in each of these realms and competing for electoral acceptance. In a party state, however, a single dominant political party and its affiliates supersede the state apparatus and take the responsibility to reconcile these contrary axial principles. History has shown the results of this to be disastrous. There are reasons for this.

First, there is the conceit of ideology that a party is founded on that it believes can bring purpose to the functioning of the state. The belief is that the levers of the state and the power they wield have so far been used for personal gains or for pushing a narrow agenda. But now that we are in power, our ideology will guide us on how to use it. This will be pure and beautiful. Unfortunately, that’s not how it will turn out. The state that’s simultaneously powerful and flailing like in the case of India will now have another powerful entity, the party, lording over it. The natural checks and balances of the state that create an equilibrium in its functioning will be interfered with by the party. Soon, the party will realise the natural contradictions of the ‘three realms’ cannot be centrally planned or managed. As things go out of control, the party will use the power of the state to become more authoritarian and paranoid as it tries to keep its credibility intact. This is how good intentions and exalted ideology have eventually led to a totalitarian state in history. 

Second, after a while, even the ideology won’t matter. The ‘purpose’ will become the reason for justifying all actions. The purpose is a baser, twisted form of the ideology often aimed at its enemies. The masses will view every action and every promise not from a lens of its effectiveness, nor will they try to locate any truth there. All that will matter is the purpose and the conviction or ‘vishwaas’. This is a reality in India already. There’s nothing that cannot be morphed into a means to achieve the purpose. A win in sports, an achievement in science, an NRI becoming a CEO, the death of a soldier - everything can be used to serve the purpose. This isn’t restricted to one political camp anymore. The many defenders of free speech who line up to support the TMC, a party that is no exemplar of the idea, come in the same category where the ideology is subordinated to a short-term purpose. 

As Hannah Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), wrote:

“The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

…..What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”   

Now that both sides of the political spectrum have picked up this playbook, expect worse. 

Lastly, what turns this into a point of no return is the betrayal of the elites who should know better. The ability to call out others on the basis of principles instead of adhering to tribal loyalties is fundamental to the role of intellectuals. This is a fast diminishing space in India. Elites on both sides continue to retreat deep into their camps of certitudes. Social media and its performative nature make it difficult to accept mistakes, change opinions or demonstrate objectivity. The role of the elites is increasingly to advance post-facto justifications. What is often called policy-based evidence-making. 

To quote Arendt again:

“The elite formations are distinguished from the ordinary party membership in that they do not need such demonstrations and are not even supposed to believe in the literal truth of ideological clichés. These are fabricated to answer a quest for truth among the masses which in its insistence on explanation and demonstration still has much in common with the normal world. The elite is not composed of ideologists; its members' whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.”

That then is how the future looks like regardless of who is in power at the end of the decade. It might appear overly pessimistic but it is difficult to deny the inevitable trend. The possible silver lining is the fairly large share of youth in the population living in a hyperconnected and increasingly decentralised world which might lead them to question the ‘declaration of purpose’. For that reason alone, I’m willing to buy into the decentralised utopia that’s on offer from the metaverse. We’ll see. Hum dekhenge.     


India Policy Watch #2: The Reformist Gene

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Lateral entry into the government is a well-established evergreen topic in our public policy discourse. Over time though, the Overton Window has shifted. More people now realise that even a brilliant IAS officer who passed an entrance test in their twenties cannot be adept at functions as diverse as regulating crypto assets, running companies, and administering public health. Instead, it is better that professionals be brought into the government to close the governance gap.

What I didn’t know was that at some point in time, India’s economic policy establishment was far more open to lateral entrants than it is now. In fact, many in the key cast of characters steering the 1991 reforms came through this route. One of them was Montek Singh Ahluwalia. In his excellent book Backstage, Ahluwalia describes how some economists went on to have long, fruitful careers within government domains that fall squarely in IAS territory today.

“Having joined government in a regular position for economists as economic advisor in the Ministry of Finance, I could have hoped to get to the position of chief economic advisor in normal course. But like Loveraj Kumar, Bimal Jalan, Vijay Kelkar and our more distinguished predecessors Dr (Manmohan) Singh and I.G. Patel, I was fortunate to move into government positions normally reserved for the IAS.”

Montek Singh Ahluwalia. BACKSTAGE: The Story behind India’s High Growth Years (pp. 37-38). Rupa. Kindle Edition.

Of course, this might just be a case of survivorship bias. There would also have been a much bigger set of lateral entrants who might not have been this successful. Nevertheless, it offers an interesting thought. Given that India is in severe need of reforms2.0, would it make sense to draft in a special task force of lateral entrants?

The Union government in recent times has made a small attempt to bring professionals at the joint secretary and director levels. Given the dire need for reforms, perhaps it’s time to bring lateral entrants in much higher numbers for a fixed tenure that’s long enough to orchestrate new pathways. Thinking of this move as a Reforms2.0 special task force can reduce the salience of boilerplate arguments against lateral entry.

Finally, this sage advice from Ahluwalia on how lateral entrants could find their way amidst IAS officers is educational:

“Senior civil servants would resist listening to an economist if the economist was peddling specialized knowledge…. An approach that seemed to work particularly well was to first introduce an idea as a suggestion, explore its implications with a senior colleague, subsequently refer to the idea as one that had evolved jointly in the discussion, and finally include more and more people in that discussion and share credit for the idea. More often than not, the idea actually did evolve and got better refined through the different stages. Besides persuading my colleagues and seniors about the need for change, this approach seems to have broken down the barriers of my position vis-à-vis my IAS colleagues.”

Montek Singh Ahluwalia. BACKSTAGE: The Story behind India’s High Growth Years (p. 37). Rupa. Kindle Edition.

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A Framework a Week: Moralising is Central to Storytelling

— Pranay Kotasthane

A new book The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down, by Jonathan Gotschall looks promising in the context of narratives in public policy.

An excerpt of the book in Quillette gets to the core argument. The book argues that most stories are strikingly similar in their structure. They have the protagonist working for a common good while the villain is portrayed “selfish, exploitative, and sadistic”. Crucially, stories don’t always project the protagonist as having no flaws, rather as someone striking a balance between self-interest and common good. On the other hand, the antagonist is projected as plain selfish. The book posits that the reason for such a story arc is evolutionary: stories were important in hunter-gatherer societies. Stories were important tools to keep the group together, to discourage showing off, and to encourage sharing.

These lines from the excerpt show why Mahabharata is such a powerful story:

The protagonist is rarely a saint and not just because saints are boring. An interesting protagonist must have room for improvement. Creative writing teachers sometimes call the main protagonist of a story “the transformational character.” Main antagonists usually don’t evolve. Main protagonists do. In most cases, the transformation is moral. Protagonists go from being takers to givers. From blindness to sight. From confusion to understanding.

The book has another interesting point: even if stories don’t have a moral at the end, they are deeply moralistic and judgmental, transforming the reader into a:

“moral monitor who applauds or condemns the intentions and actions of the characters.”

There in lies an evil side of great stories:

The unstoppable moralism of stories has a big upside for within-group bonding. But the universal grammar of stories can also be paranoid and vindictive. Stories show us problem-drenched worlds and encourage us to turn on the people who are lousing things up. In other words, to proliferate narratives is to proliferate villains. To proliferate villains is also to proliferate rage, judgment, and division.

So, does the world appear broken partly because the narratives — and hence villains — have proliferated in the information age?

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Video] Uli Baer in conversation with philosopher Richard J. Bernstein (The New School) on Hannah Arendt

  2. [Book] Marketcraft by Steven K Vogel is an interesting read. The central thesis is that markets need to be created; the government vs market dichotomy is misleading.