The Intelligent Person's Guide to Good Governance


Surendra Munshi, Biju Paul Abraham & Soma Chaudhuri

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    The term good governance has been in discussion for quite some time now. It could well be expected that the vast literature that exists on the subject would have proved helpful in sorting out key issues by now. This has sadly not happened. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the volume of literature on the subject and the clarity that has been achieved on it. The term has nevertheless found a wide acceptance even outside the circles of experts and institutions which are professionally concerned with developmental issues. In India, for example, it is not all that uncommon to hear these days that a particular election was fought on the issue of good governance. Politicians, journalists and common citizens do not feel uncomfortable in using the term. Nobody denies that good governance is needed, though it is a different matter whether this need is met beyond rhetorical assertions. Yet another problem that any person who engages with the subject faces is the problem of finding a text that considers different relevant issues at one place. The issue of good governance is clearly connected with other issues that are important in our public life, such as, the role of the state or the idea of civil society.

    Though much valuable literature exists on these issues, it is not often that they are discussed in a connected manner. For any person who is interested in the subject this involves preparing a list of relevant writings, collecting and then reading them systematically.

    Can you suggest just one book that I can read on good governance to form a basic idea on the subject? This book is written with this question in mind. It is written for all those who may be interested in exploring the subject for academic or practical purposes. Surprisingly, in the vast literature that exists on good governance, it is hard to find such books. It is left to the readers of this book to decide whether it achieves the clarity that is required. One thing may be claimed though with some confidence. In putting a book on good governance in the hands of the readers interested in forming a basic idea of the subject, this book may make the task of such readers easier. It puts the wisdom of several studies at their disposal. It puts also the outcome of our own thinking in writing of the book at their disposal. The bibliography given at the end of the book may be useful for the readers in pursuing their interests further.

    In writing this book on good governance, relevant experiences and authors have been drawn from different parts of the world. This will become clear by a quick look at the table of contents and the bibliography that accompanies this book. If the United States and Britain feature in the discussion on the Third Way, Poland finds a place of pride in the discussion on civil society. It was interesting to watch Bill Clinton and Tony Blair shape their Third Way, just as it was exciting to watch Lech Walesa carry out his struggle in the Gdansk shipyards.

    It is also to be admitted that, within the context of this broad coverage, India has been given a special treatment not only in discussing whether India is ungovernable but also in different chapters. This is done intentionally, for the Indian experience may be interesting not only to Indian readers but also to others who may find, in this experience, something useful. The largest democracy in the world does throw up large questions that have a broader relevance.

    What are the conclusions that can be drawn on the basis of this study? As an answer to this question, among several that are possible, I wish to emphasise that we seem to be moving towards a paradoxical situation. As good governance becomes more and more important with societies all over adjusting to the reality of the emerging world, the good governance discourse seems to be exhausting itself. While good governance is needed in poor societies devastated by wars or internal dissensions, it is also needed in the affluent societies of the West where, as has been observed by Yves Meny (1997), the insulation of the people from politics has perhaps gone too far except in the ritualistic sense of periodic elections. It is, therefore, important to rebuild a democratic polity that is adapted to the present time. Rulers, democratically elected or autocratically self-appointed, are seen as not caring for the real problems of the people, and dissatisfaction with them appears to be widespread all over the world. This appears to be happening ironically at a time when more people are living under democratic arrangements than ever before in the world. This is our opportunity. Concern with good governance opens the possibility of rethinking the issues of governance that are relevant for our times. It helps us to go beyond the state and to think of different modes of partnerships that need to be worked out. It opens the possibility of reconsidering important issues concerning the purpose and principles of governance. Indeed, we have the possibility of asking ourselves fundamental questions of collective social life when much can be learned from each other. This can be done if the discussion on good governance goes beyond its self-inflicted narrow perspective. What is needed is to recognise that one perspective fashionable in one part of the world at a particular time may not offer to humanity all the answers that it seeks. We need to go beyond the wisdom of insulated experts and open the discussion to those whose lives are affected. The history of humanity has not ended: we may well be on the threshold of a new era.

    It is my pleasant task now to thank Biju (Paul Abraham) and Soma (Chaudhuri) for all their support in writing this book. Biju proved helpful as a collaborator in all possible ways. Soma was helpful in the bibliographical work and related activities. It needs to be noted here that the views expressed in this book are not meant in any way to represent the views of the institutions with which we are associated in different ways at present. I shall fail in my duty if I do not acknowledge the support of Anupama (Muhuri) who also helped with the bibliographical work. I am grateful to Sugata Ghosh of Sage India for his confidence and patience and to the members of his team for seeing this book through so well.

  • Appendix: Is India Ungovernable?

    It is common for argumentative Indians to argue that a vast and varied land like India is ungovernable. When Indian politicians display unruly behaviour in the Parliament and legislative assemblies or the media comes up with unsavoury stories about some politicians or administrators, it is common to conclude in popular discussions that when those who are responsible for governance behave irresponsibly there is no hope for the country. With the reports of the mob taking the law in its hands on Indian streets appearing rather frequently, there seems to be a further confirmation of the belief that India is regressing into a dark age. Is Indian democracy turning into mobocracy? This is a question that is often asked with concern. Not just popular discussions but also scholarly and informed reflections engage with the issue of governability in one form or the other. We consider here selectively some of the positions without subjecting them to a critical examination.

    In 1990, Atul Kohli published a book under the title Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis ofGovernability. Kohli's book is an attempt to analyse political changes in India from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, based on a fieldwork carried out in India during 1985 and 1986. The writing of the book was nearly finished in late 1989 when the results of the General Election held that year were made available. They raised doubts in Kohli's mind about the continued possibility of India having stable majority governments in the coming years.

    Though India was considered to be a stable democracy in the 1950s and 1960s, Kohli argues, it is now considered more and more ungovernable with ample evidence of disorder. There is increasing evidence of ‘personal rule’ both at the Centre and in constituent states. The bureaucracy is no longer considered neutral, and various sections of society have turned to violence to achieve their aims. The state is unable to deal with this situation and alternates between ignoring such violence and trying to repress it. This has made the situation worse and has led to the need to bring out the army to maintain law and order.

    The period after independence was a period of hope in India when a sincere attempt was made to lay the foundation of governance. Parliamentary democracy was adopted and an attempt was made to ensure that bureaucracy was apolitical and armed forces kept out of politics. This could not be continued. Kohli examines the reasons that are responsible for the crisis of governability. As conflicts between different interests have multiplied and the ability of the Congress Party to resolve them has diminished, the Party has tried to retain power by projecting personalities who try to increase their influence by adopting populist measures. Such populism has weakened state institutions and made political leaders even more authoritarian. With the domination of personalities, the fate of a party worker depends on his loyalty to a leader, not on his contribution to the organisation. A political party thus becomes ineffective as a party in the political process. This has also meant that political leaders no longer try to be agents of conflict resolution at the regional and local levels. This further marginalises their political role and leads to extra-constitutional behaviour. Kohli also looks at the awakening of electoral constituencies that have traditionally been dormant. Though such an awakening is good for a democracy, it can have negative implications for a democratic system that is unable to fulfil aspirations raised by an access to political power. The conflict between different groups over the issue of reservation is an example of this type. There is also an attempt to mobilise people on religious or regional lines to increase political influence. The increasing power of the marginalised people is leading them to demand more for themselves, and this is leading to problems of governance. As newly empowered groups organise to demand a fair share for themselves, existing groups organise to retain their share. In the absence of a political system that can mediate and resolve conflict between the contesting groups, this leads to even more instability and conflict. Along with political problems there has also been the decline of civil society institutions. Democracy has empowered the marginalised and this has meant that the dominance of the higher castes that provided some stability to the system has eroded. Since no party is dominant, the system has not been able to absorb the rise of the newly empowered people and to ensure their co-option into a stable political system. This has meant that the response to political demands is usually a violent one that relies on the use of the army and paramilitary forces.

    The crisis of governability needs to be considered in a broader perspective. A theory popular with developmental experts is that tensions constitute an inevitable outcome of economic growth. A Marxist explanation would point towards an unequal distribution of wealth. Kohli's study seems to indicate that, while the problem does relate to wealth distribution, it has more to do with the failure of the Indian state to develop strong institutions needed to resolve the problems thrown up by economic growth and the social churning that is taking place. A state that treats all its citizens as equals and gives them an equal say in deciding who will govern them is difficult to establish in a society where there is widespread economic inequality. Though this process was initiated in Europe in the 19th century, democracy flourished there only when rapid economic growth ensured that there was a larger cake to share and economic inequalities did not threaten the democratic system. Such rapid economic growth has not taken place in India. Similarly, a state that intervenes heavily in economic activity should ensure that such an intervention is impartial and the process of economic decision making is not captured by special interest groups. This has also not happened in India. The fact that economic policy favours existing elites only adds to the problem of governance. The institutions that could have ensured the impartiality of decision making have been systematically destroyed by successive governments.

    Yet another book, India: Problems of Governance published in 1996, by Bhabani Sen Gupta takes the argument to the 1990s. This book was published under the auspices of Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. It was part of a broader study on the problems of governance in South Asia as a whole, a region seen as ‘one of the most difficult regions to govern’. Sen Gupta wrote the volume on India, while other volumes published were on Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Confining our attention to India for our present purpose, it is useful to follow Sen Gupta's assessment.

    Sen Gupta sees the problem of governance fundamentally arising out of a cleavage between power and people. Political leaders are getting increasingly isolated from the people. The process of governance has been subverted by the politicisation of the bureaucracy and the police, and the election process is being undermined by a rapid increase in candidates with criminal backgrounds. Power has still not been transferred to the masses and while a lot is said about empowering the poor there is very little that is done to ensure that this actually happens. The failure to remove poverty is also the result of a bureaucratic system that was structured more towards political control than economic upliftment. India has failed to find an alternative to bureaucratic processes. The crisis of the India model was inherent in the nature of the Indian Republic that was created after independence. The newly independent nation was just the rebirth of the old empire in a new form. Sen Gupta calls it ‘the empire-to-nation syndrome’ (p. 89). The country was technically free but the masses were not free from the imperial administrative system. The model of parliamentary democracy that was imported from abroad is not able to give the people a free choice in terms of who will rule them. Most of the government rule is through the agency of the bureaucracy which remains colonial in its attitudes. The government is democratically elected but the people are ruled by an authoritarian administration.

    It is unlikely that any solutions to India's problems will come from the existing leadership. The political leadership is not aware of the crisis, and its getting advice on solutions from a bureaucracy that has failed does not help. Most institutions that could have brought about change are themselves in a deep crisis. The electoral process could have brought about political change. But personality cult plays an important role in the electoral process and this prevents a campaign based on real-life issues. Though a majority of parliamentarians are from the farming community they represent the relatively well off farmers and not the landless peasants. Moreover, most of them are either old or middle aged and cannot be expected to bring about radical change. The judiciary has become increasingly activist in orientation and has intervened on a number of occasions to ensure that the rights of the people are protected. But this has happened only at higher levels of the judiciary. At lower levels the system is mired in corruption and delays.

    The economic situation is only marginally better than the political scene. The traditional Nehruvian model of economic growth was a failure in many ways. It did not focus on agriculture preferring instead to concentrate on industry. This meant that the rural masses did not benefit from the fruits of economic growth. Another failure arose out of an emphasis on investment rather than on productivity. Low productivity was the result of controls that were exercised over the public and private sector investments. A major drawback of the Nehruvian model was its emphasis on higher education. It did not build India's human resources in terms of increasing literacy levels. Instead, it created a large number of highly trained professionals who emigrated to the West. National institutions built at great costs did very little to help solve the problems of the country. Yet another failure was with respect to foreign investment. There was too much of emphasis on using domestic resources and capital for economic growth denying India the benefit of foreign capital and expertise. This ensured that, while India lagged behind at low levels of investment, technology and productivity, other Asian countries, especially those in South-East Asia, forged rapidly ahead. There is also a much deeper problem at work. The elites in India do not mind that their country is mired in poverty and backwardness since it does not affect them directly. They fear that any attempt to remove it would be at their expense.

    Sen Gupta is pessimistic about ‘the possibility of the quality of governance getting better in the coming years’ (p. 255). There does not seem to be ‘much chance of the ruling class reforming the decaying and degenerating political system and process’ (p. 392). Yet, as S. Guhan (1997) has noted, he has something else to say suddenly and without prior warning. Sen Gupta writes:

    Perhaps in the next decade or so, if one stubbornly holds on to an optimistic view of Indian democracy, as this writer does, the house that is today in a state of despair will be built, on the architectural model of the Great Wall of China, from different sides and different blocks, all of which joined together in webs of participatory governments. (pp. 396—97)

    His optimistic vision of India is an economy free from bureaucratic control and a vast network of self-governing democratic institutions operating across the nation at all levels, spanning districts and villages. The beginning can be made, in a true Indian manner, by the appointment of a National Commission of eminent persons who will redraw ‘the political map of India for better governance’ (p. 419).

    If Sen Gupta has both a pessimistic as well as an optimistic view to share, Kohli has something similar to offer. In an edited book The Success of India's Democracy that he brought out in 2001, an attempt is made to examine how a low income economy with widespread poverty and illiteracy has been successful in maintaining a democratic system. The idea is to draw lessons from this experience.

    Kohli notes that India does not have many attributes of societies that are democratic. It is not an advanced industrial economy, it is ethnically diverse and it does not have the ‘civic culture’ normally associated with democratic societies. The fact that India is still a democracy can be attributed to the way in which different interests in society have been able to reach an understanding on the sharing of political and economic power. This in turn can be attributed to the style of political leadership that has evolved and the nature of political institutions that have been created. The success has also been due to the fact that the Indian political system has managed to strike a balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces and also allowed political elites to maintain their dominance of the system while at the same time co-opting less dominant sections when they have challenged elite dominance. This compromise is not perfect and has created imperfections in Indian governance. But the fact that the system is capable of achieving this compromise, however tenuous, has ensured that India remains democratic. Democracy could not have survived in India if it had not served the interests of dominant classes. However, the sheer size of the marginalised people meant that ignoring their interests would have serious consequences as well. The political system that evolved thus put heavy emphasis on the rhetoric of redistribution without actually implementing a radical redistribution of resources. Radical rhetoric and conservative implementation of plans has ensured that a balance is struck and this has strengthened Indian democracy. India's success in the past in maintaining a democratic system and the continuation of this success can be ensured only by a ‘moderate democracy’ that ensures that political accommodation is neither too much nor too little. The challenge is in knowing how to strike a balance between these two positions. Indian democracy will fail if it does not recognise and accommodate diverse interests or if it tries to be too accommodative. If diverse interests are not accommodated, disenchanted groups will try to break away from the union; in the case of too much accommodation, the lack of resources for effective redistribution will weaken the viability of the state itself.

    In his earlier book, Democracy and Discontent, Kohli had written that there are tendencies within Indian politics that do not fit in with the major argument of the book that India's problems of governability have worsened. ‘A situation of political turmoil can always be viewed in different lights,’ he wrote, ‘much as a cup can be seen as half full, rather than half empty’ (p. 8). This tendency to view India pessimistically and at the same time optimistically or to see the cup as both half empty and half full is to be seen also in an article that Amartya Sen wrote on ‘How is India Doing?’ for The New York Review of Books in 1982 and which was later published in a book in a revised version (Sen 1986).

    Sen talked in this article of the failures and achievements of India since independence. He saw in this article Indian society as a deeply troubled society with injustices heaped upon inequities. Among the failures he noted the shocking neglect of elementary education in India. He writes:

    After thirty-five years of Independence, only a miserable 36 per cent of adult Indians are literate. In this nation with a nuclear capacity, well-developed scientific know-how, and a higher education ratio perhaps eight times that of China, nearly two-thirds of the citizens simply cannot read or write. (p. 35)

    He reserves his greatest criticism for the persistence of malnourishment. He notes at least a third of those living in rural areas do not get adequate food. This is a particular problem of landless labourers who are dependent on work for buying food. Many of them and their families have to go hungry. The persistence of malnutrition also means that self-sufficiency in food is not as great an achievement as it is often portrayed to be. India does not produce enough food to meet the nutritional requirements of its population. Governments have been able to overlook malnutrition because they have taken care to see that starvation deaths are avoided by the provision of minimal food. It may be added here that there have been changes in recent times but these changes have not been very significant. The Human Development Report 2007/2008 (UNDP 2007), for example, shows that, while India's score in the Human Development Index has improved, rapid economic growth in India has reflected modestly with respect to poverty reduction and malnutrition (p. 40). What are the achievements of India? Sen mentions India's economic performance since independence which appears quite credible in the light of the performance of the economy at the time of independence. No major famine has taken place and expectation of life at birth has gone up. India has taken initiative in affirmative action and positive discrimination. Another achievement has been that, contrary to apprehensions about the break up of the country in view of regional disparities, there has been no disintegration.

    This dichotomy of failures and achievements, of weaknesses and strengths, can be seen on a broader scale. Munshi (1999) has argued that the 20th century could be seen as the Indian century, if one took into consideration the entire century. Three major achievements of India are freedom, democracy and unity. While the struggle for freedom was the main concern during the first part of the century, the struggle to establish and maintain the largest democracy in the world was the main concern of the second part. What Europe aspires to achieve has already been achieved here. The Indian Union is a living reality and has been so for several decades now. This is impressive enough. But the irony of Indian history, argues Munshi, is that the ground reality appears fractured on all these points. Independence came to the subcontinent along with communal carnage and partition that caused suffering and loss to millions of people. Indian democracy is riddled with perversions, and Indian unity has become precarious.

    Is then the reality of India the reality of fractured achievements so far? This may not be out of tune with popular perception. In an issue that attracted much attention, India Today (1997) ran a cover story under the title ‘Fifty-Fifty’ to sum up the assessment about the existence of India as an independent nation for 50 years. The picture seemed to be both disturbing and reassuring. Since 1997, India has attracted favourable attention for its economic achievements. Indian economy is currently being called one of the ‘Goldilocks’ economies with a comfortable growth rate and a tolerable inflation rate. Now that there seems to be greater confidence in the future, it is possible that weaknesses will be overlooked. While it will not do to overlook weaknesses, there is also no reason to run down strengths. The weaknesses of India, just as India's strengths, are massive. There are valid reasons for pessimism as well as optimism. The issue of governability, like other issues, will be settled by the choices that the Indians themselves make for removing major bottlenecks.

    It is common to identify these bottlenecks as poor infrastructure and more cripplingly as poor performance with respect to education and health for the country's masses. The even more basic problem is the manner in which politics has become a way not to achieve the common good but the good of the persons engaged in it. In an article, ‘Poverty of Politics’, Munshi (2005) argues that politics of the negative kind pervades life in India at all levels. The outcome of this kind of politicisation is not only corruption but also what he calls ‘vision deficit’ in public life. Nothing illustrates this better than the controversy that was widely reported in newspapers at that time between Narayana Murthy and Deve Gowda regarding the Bangalore international airport project. Murthy had walked out of the project due to the delay in implementing it. Gowda tried to politicise the issue by bringing in all sorts of considerations that had little to do with the issue of improving the poor infrastructure of Bangalore. For Murthy the issue was to improve the urban governance of Bangalore and indeed other cities, for Gowda the issue seemed to be to protect his political turf. While Murthy one of India's most successful entrepreneurs, saw the world as his arena, Gowda as a local politician was doing politics in a routine manner within the confines of state politics. These are two faces of contemporary India. This is where Joseph Schumpeter becomes relevant to us. What works in a situation of slow change, he argues, may not work in a situation of rapid change. A new plan in a situation of rapid change cannot be carried out in a routine manner that is more in tune with a situation of slow change. It became clear as the controversy became public that what constituted ‘delay’ in the implementation of the project was seen differently by Murthy and Gowda. The poverty of politics, Munshi argues, in a country like India is that what is required for making a road or for that matter an airport in a world that is increasingly becoming one is not adequately realised. That it requires among other things a high level of efficiency is something that needs to be understood. Different sections of Indian society, especially Indian politicians, need to wake up to the full potential of India in the world today.


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    About the Authors

    Surendra Munshi is at present Fellow of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. He retired as Professor of Sociology from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. He has taught and researched in India and abroad in the fields of classical sociological theory, sociology of culture, industrial sociology and professional management. He led an Indo-European project on good governance with the funding of the European Commission. The outcome of the project appeared in a book of which he was the co-editor (with Biju Paul Abraham) under the title Good Governance, Democratic Societies and Globalisation, published by Sage Publications in 2004. He is currently working on a book on the theme of language, religion and identity.

    Biju Paul Abraham is Professor of Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. His teaching and research interests include issues related to comparative public policy, administrative reforms and good governance. He has also worked on international governance issues, especially decision-making within the World Trade Organization. He is co-editor (with Surendra Munshi) of the book Good Governance, Democratic Societies and Globalisation published by Sage Publications in 2004.

    Soma Chaudhuri is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and The School of Criminal Justice at the Michigan State University. She is a qualitative sociologist whose work focuses on witch hunts, deviant behaviour and social movements. Her dissertation (Tempest in a Tea Pot: An Analysis of Witch Hunts in the Tea Plantations of India) is a study of how a migrant labour community uses ‘extreme deviance’ as a form of protest.

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