#98 Parliamentary Overslide 🎧


This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

PS: If you enjoy listening instead of reading, we have this edition available as an audio narration on all podcasting platforms courtesy the good folks at Ad-Auris.

Global Policy Watch — Storming Se Storming Tak: From 1642 To 2021


Here’s a short quiz to begin things.

What’s common to these dates (not an exhaustive list)?

4 January 1642: England

Feb 27, 1933: Germany 

Feb 23, 1981: Spain

April 27, 2017: Macedonia


Here’s a clue. The latest entrant to this list

Jan 6, 2021: USA

‘Workout-able’ now?

These are select instances of attacks on parliament buildings in democracies over the years. Of course, this is different from attacks that happen within the parliament building where lawmakers have a go at each other using microphone stands, paper-weights and files as projectiles. That’s a rich and glorious tradition where Taiwan, South Korea and India are global leaders.

The attacks on parliament from the outside is a different phenomenon. It points to a fracture in the common belief among citizens about the power or legitimacy of the sovereign. This is not mere symbolism. Often the attacks are real attempts to disrupt or change the outcomes of a parliamentary process to elect the head of the government.

That’s what happened, say, in Spain on Feb 23, 1981 when Lt. Col Tejero and his small band of army men burst into the lower house of the Spanish legislature during the vote to elect a new Prime Minister. The attempt to overthrow the democratic regime came unstuck when King Juan Carlos denounced it in a televised address. The storming of the Macedonian parliament in 2017 was done in somewhat similar circumstances though without any section of army backing it. That brings us to Germany. The fire at Reichstag in 1933 right after the Hitler had been sworn in as the Chancellor was blamed on a communist conspiracy. It is almost certain now that this was engineered by the Nazis to demonise their opponents. This incident of arson was then used by the Nazis to issue a nationwide emergency and pursue the communists with a vengeance. The Communists MPs were arrested and the Nazis won the elections to those vacant seats as was expected. Within a year the Nazis had complete control over the German state. You know how that story ends.

The Original Storming

My interest, however, is in the first instance of the storming of a Parliament: Jan 4, 1642.

This was no ordinary rebel laying siege over the lawmakers in Westminster. It was Charles I, the king of England. He entered the Parliament with armed soldiers to arrest five MPs who he accused of treason. What had they done? Well, to the king and his loyalists, they were anti-nationals. Sounds familiar. They were accused of encouraging Scotland to invade England and a conspiracy to defame the king. Charles went into the parliament and called out the name of the five MPs seeking their arrest. He asked the House speaker, William Lenthall, about their whereabouts. Lenthall responded:

“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

In a historic first of sorts, the speaker had sided with the parliament over the divine will of the king.

“All my birds have flown,” Charles I said as he scanned the member benches for the five MPs.

The storming of the parliament by Charles I was a seminal moment in the history of democracy. The tussle for sovereignty between the parliament and monarchy that had been simmering for over three decades had reached its flashpoint.

The English parliament in those days was a collection of landed gentry who controlled the exchequer through their power of collecting taxes. The king needed its approval to raise taxes. By the time Charles I ascended the throne in 1625, the Crown was deep in debt no thanks to the expensive wars of the Tudor and Stuart periods and the lavish lifestyles of the royalty. This apart Charles had other problems too. There was a deep suspicion among the aristocrats about the strength of his Protestant affiliation after he married the Catholic Bourbon princess Maria of France. His subsequent religious acts did nothing to dispel this impression. The desire of Charles I to go to war with Scotland meant he wanted the parliament to increase taxes and do his bidding. The parliament continued to resist and Charles dissolved it in 1629.

The next 11 years when he ruled without a sitting parliament is termed his ‘personal rule’. He introduced new taxes arbitrarily, supported Catholic religious policies and hounded the aristocrats who opposed him. The tyranny was going well but for a small hitch. He still needed the parliament to convene for collecting the tax revenues. He called a new parliament in 1640 in the hope he will be able to control it. Not quite. The parliament passed an act that forbade its own dissolution and went about rolling back the policies that Charles had set in motion. The stage was set for him to storm the parliament looking for the errant MPs.

The Post-Metaphysical Age

The storming of the parliament led to what is collectively called the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Charles I was tried and executed in 1649 (none of this namby-pamby impeachment business in those days). There were three key outcomes of the civil wars:

  1. The replacement of English monarch by the Commonwealth of England

  2. The consolidation of Protestant ascendancy and the defeat of Catholicism in England. The downstream impact of this was huge

  3. The precedent that the English monarch cannot rule without the Parliament’s approval. The seal of Parliamentary sovereignty and the establishment of individual rights, however, were legally established only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

There’s a subplot here.

A gifted English polymath who had fled England in 1640 to Paris watched all this unfold with interest and concern. A man of science who counted Galileo, Bacon and Mersenne among his friends, he was developing a theory of about people, nature and politics as he came to terms with the chaos in his country. He was also the tutor to Charles II, the young prince, who was in exile in Paris. By 1650, he was ready with his magnum opus that broke new ground on the relation between the state and its subjects. In 1651, he returned to England.

His name was Thomas Hobbes. The book was Leviathan.

The Genesis Of The Modern Liberal State

Hobbes is, arguably, the founder of modern political philosophy and Leviathan is a masterpiece of original thinking. Hobbes made three core arguments in it:

  1. The State of Nature: Human beings left to themselves will pursue their objectives of maximising their comforts. These pursuits will bring them in conflict with others. People are similar (within a range) in terms of their physical and mental prowess. So no one person can dominate others for long. This led him to conclude that humans in their state of nature would be in constant strife with one another. “A war of everyone against everyone” is how he called it. In this state, he famously said, human life would be “nasty, brutish and short.”

  2. The Laws of Nature: Hobbes argued that humans were rational beings who understood the futility of living in the state of nature. They would seek a practical solution to establish peace. To Hobbes, this solution was for people to establish mutual covenant (agreement) among themselves to submit to the authority of a sovereign. Simply put, people will be willing to forego some of their freedoms to a sovereign institution in return for peace and rule of law governed by that authority.

  3. Unlimited Sovereign Authority: For Hobbes, once the people had come together to hand over the power to the sovereign, its power was unlimited. There was no quid pro quo involved here. No real checks and balances. So long as the sovereign kept peace among its people and protected them from outside powers, it retained its political legitimacy. Nothing else mattered. Any attempt to split the powers of the sovereign would render it ineffective.

The impact of Leviathan on future political philosophers was profound. In many ways, it is the foundational text of the modern state. Everyone from Locke, Rousseau, Weber to Rawls have used it either as a springboard or as a counter to develop their social and political theories. The criticism of Hobbes over the centuries is also useful to shine a light on the originality of his thinking. The usual arguments offered against his political philosophy include:

  1. A bleak view of human nature: The short conclusion easily drawn from Leviathan is that Hobbes held no illusions about the nature of human beings. Left to themselves in a natural state, they would be in an endless series of internecine wars. This is Hunger Games territory. But Hobbes was a bit more nuanced than that. To him, it is not human nature to be in a war of everyone against everyone. Instead, in the absence of laws and its enforcer, human beings pursuing their rational interests will get in the way of each other. This will be the basis for strife and not the absence of better angels of their nature

  2. Social contract theorist: Some view Hobbes belonging to the line of social contract theorists who thought and wrote about the arrangement between the society and the state or the ruled and the rulers. This isn’t exactly accurate. Social contract theory assumes that society already exists with a contract among its members. The society then enters into a ‘second contract’ with the state by relinquishing some of its freedom in exchange for peace and stability from the sovereign. For Hobbes, there was no second contract. The society or the state don’t exist ab initio. There is only a single contract - the covenant between the members of the society to come together. The sovereign emerges from this. It is almost like the ‘Big Bang’ theory of political philosophy.

  3. Totalitarian: The other criticism of Hobbes is he justifies a totalitarian regime when he lets the sovereign off the hook for any kind of quid pro quo contract with the society. This is misreading of the term absolute. Hobbes considers the sovereign absolute in terms of its power which means they ‘can interfere’ in ‘any aspect’ of the lives of its citizens. This is different from a totalitarian regime which is based on the idea that the state ‘will permeate’ into ‘every aspect’ of the lives of its people. In fact, Hobbes was the first to free religion from the construct of the state. Once you are free from theology, you set the basis for a liberal state.

Bookended By Hobbes

The storming of the Capitol building by pro-Trump protesters marks a moment in the history of democracy in America. There’s always a temptation to over-read the current moment. But the irreversible slide of the discourse, the shrinking of the middle ground with a loony, conspiracy-theory fed right and an anarchist, self-righteous left and an almost cult-like adherence to prior beliefs that get accentuated in the echo chambers of social media have meant this moment was nigh. The strength of the social covenant (“we, the people) is under stress rarely experienced before. Once that covenant is broken, the political authority wanes or gets delegitimised as we see it happening in America for most of last year. Unless checked and reversed, we will be back to the state of nature. Chaos will follow.

Maybe there’s a polymath philosopher watching all of this unfold with unease while developing an original political thesis like Hobbes over four hundred years ago. The storming of the English parliament of 1642 and the siege of the Capitol in 2021 seem to bookend the political era whose foundation was laid by Hobbes.

There’s a need for a new social contract for these times.

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A Framework a Week: OOO

Tools for thinking public policy

— Pranay Kotasthane

The union government’s first post-pandemic budget will be presented in the Parliament on Feb 1. The all-consuming buildup has already begun as if it were a Rajinikanth movie. As the budget date nears, you will come across many more number-based narratives — the need for higher public health expenditure, the imperative to reduce allocations for subsidies, and the necessity to adequately fund the requirements of our armed forces.

So let’s revisit a framework that helps put these numbers in perspective. The Outlays-Outputs-Outcomes (OOO) framework is a useful way to analyse the many schemes that the Finance Minister will announce on Feb 1.

Inputs/Outlays refer to the resources provided to a scheme or project that the government runs. Once the budget is presented, virtually all the public discussion will be on these outlays. This gives an idea of how the union government prioritises all its functions. But as we all know, outlays for a project is no guarantee for success. To measure success, policies or schemes need two other parameters: outputs and outcomes. Outputs refer to the direct and measurable product of program activities, often expressed in physical terms or units. Outcomes, on the other hand, are the long-term benefits that a project or intervention is designed to deliver.

Using this framework allows us to scrutinise government schemes better. As Ajay Shah writes:

This framework became famous around education, where the inputs are school buildings and recruitment of teachers, the outputs are kids who are enrolled and attend school, and the outcomes are what the kids actually know. From about 2004 onwards, we have understood that very large increases in public expenditure in the per-pupil expenses were associated with essentially no gains in the outcomes. The education bureaucracy has proclaimed its victories as counted by school buildings, teachers employed or kids enrolled. But at a fundamental level, state spending on elementary education has not delivered: vast increases in the input has not delivered gains in the outcome.

This framework also yields a useful vocabulary for measuring success. We can assess policies in terms of its economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Economy refers to inputs. It answers the question: are project inputs being purchased at the right price? Efficiency relates to outputs over inputs. It answers the question: what is the relationship between investment in inputs and the outputs that are produced? Effectiveness relates to outcomes over outputs. It answers the question: are outputs leading to the expected outcomes? (all definitions are taken from Indicators of Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts in Security and Justice Programming, DFID).

Ideally, any government programme should begin with a theory of change that connects the desired end state (outcomes) to the programme activities that need to be carried out (outputs) which further require a set of resources (inputs).

Seen from this frame, a policy that fails to achieve the desired outcomes can mean two things. One, that there was an implementation failure. Insufficient outlays or difficulty in converting outlays into outputs due to corruption are examples of implementation issues. Two, that there was a theory of change failure which means that the assumed causal linkage between outputs and outcomes was incorrect.

In the Indian context, a commonly held notion is that governments have good policies but poor implementation. What’s less appreciated is that policies often fail because the underlying theory of change itself is inaccurate.

Better data and feedback help uncover this theory of change failure. For example, ASER surveys have now shifted the conversation on education by disproving the theory that more schools and better-paid teachers alone can lead to better student learning outcomes. The National Family Health Survey data can similarly help question the assumed causal linkages between health outlays, outputs, and outcomes. It is indeed a positive sign that on both health and education, we are talking effectiveness and not just outlays. This reflects that governance in these areas is maturing.

PS: For the upcoming budget, skip the outlay PDFs and open this new document called the Output Outcome Framework. It maps each government scheme outlay to the desired outcomes and outputs over the next financial year. If the budget were also to map the performance of each scheme against the promised outcomes in the year gone by, it will go a long way in correcting both implementation and theory of change failures.


Matsyanyaaya: False Equivalences with Chinese Characteristics

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action
— Pranay Kotasthane

Political turmoil in the US has understandably shaken many of us here in India. Events of this magnitude lead to a general despondency about democracy itself. The hope is that this despondency would get displaced by introspection and positive alternatives.

At the same time, we need to guard against narratives that cite these events to equate the US and China. One strand of Indian strategic thought has long held the view that a world order shaped predominantly by the PRC might be just as good (or bad) for India as the current one underpinned by US power. China’s border incursions last year led to the deprecation of this narrative but the churn in the US can give it a new lease of life.

Aided by the PRC’s attempts at drawing false equivalences on one hand and spurred by the self-criticism that is bound to dominate American thinking, we might see arguments such as this make a comeback:

We do not know how Chinese hegemony will work in the future, but we know the exploitative and heinous character of the French and the British Empires. The question is, why are we not as afraid of the West as we are of the Chinese? [China is Not Alone in Adding to the Indian Ocean WoesEconomic & Political Weekly, Atul Bhardwaj, April 2018]

Nothing can be further from the truth.

For one, there is enough evidence to suggest that a Sinocentric world order will not align with India’s quest for yogakshema — peace and prosperity for all Indians. Look at the way China has alienated — simultaneously and purposively — a new generation of peoples in all of its neighbouring countries. Look at how the Chinese Communist Party has imposed one language on a diverse set of its own peoples. And finally, look at how it has transformed its all-weather friend into a mere tributary.

Second, it’s true that the US conduct on the liberal international order is not untainted. But the norm of a liberal international order is in India’s own self-interest. We must and we do question the US when it deviates from this norm. For example, the Indian PM’s condemnation of the Capitol violence is possible in the current order. In a Sinocentric world, this norm itself will cease to exist. If the Indian PM were to criticise something even remotely equivalent in China, the party-state will spring into concerted anti-India action in economic, political, and military dimensions.

These are two clear and important differences that we shouldn’t take our eyes off in the zeitgeist.


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Book] Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes with an essay by the late W. G. Pogson Smith (skip the religious bits)

  2. [Article] Tom Mctague in The Atlantic: Is This How Greatness Ends?

  3. [Article] Rathin Roy distinguishes between the better and worse forms of deficit financing.

  4. [Paper] Abel Schumann’s OECD paper Using Outcome Indicators to Improve Policies is a must-read for public policy enthusiasts.

  5. [Podcast] Indrani Bagchi discusses the geopolitics of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on Puliyabaazi.