Tag Archives | elections

Where there is no party line

Think tanking in the age of extreme partisanship

Takshashila People

One reason there has been a fall (okay, precipitous fall) in the frequency of posts on this blog is that the day-to-day challenges of building an upstart think tank drain one’s time and energy. Another is laziness, lethargy and procrastination. Yet another is twitter, which is still the path of least resistance for the current of thought to reach the ground of public discourse. Laziness and twitter are easy to understand reasons, but what is this business of building a think tank? Almost five years since the first stamp paper was stamped at a registrar’s office in Chennai, it might be a good time to share some thoughts and experiences to deter other thoughtful, unsuspecting souls from attempting something similar.

This post is written with the intent of being the first in a series. But just like how N is initially unknown in a 1/N series of tweets, it is by no means certain that this series will be any longer than this first post. With that disclaimer, let us look at two of our core values: funding, and independence & non-partisanship.

From the outset, Takshashila’s founders decided that the organisation, a non-profit public charitable trust, will operate solely on Indian money. After all, it would be ironic for an ambition that reads “building the intellectual foundations of an India with global interests” to be financed with foreign donations. Also, foreign funding would hand detractors and opponents of our ideas a convenient handle to deliberately mischaracterise our public policy arguments as playing to a foreign agenda. Since many of the arguments that we make ruthlessly in the national interest are counter-intuitive, they are vulnerable to smear campaigns. Imagine arguing (as we have done) for 100% FDI in defence production with an unconditional, unrelated grant from a respected foreign foundation. The elimination of foreign funding has made life a lot more tougher than it could have been, but since we are set for the long haul, it is a price we have happily paid.

Maintaining independence and non-partisanship the other hard challenge, and one we’ve managed to address quite well. First, while it is relatively easy to manage an organisation (a private corporation, an association or a political party) that has an official view that everyone must fall in line with (or leave), it is much more difficult to manage one that doesn’t. A think tank and a public policy school cannot function effectively unless its members have full intellectual freedom. Yet when this freedom causes a diversity of opinions to be expressed, there is often a internal tension among those supporting different positions, and an external confusion as to whether the institution supports one or the other view. The one on whose shoulders falls the job of managing the institution, yours truly’s in this case, has to act as a mediator, negotiating platform and conciliator internally, and an official disclaimer-issuer and ‘brand manager’ externally. This is not easy. Worse, in a small start-up institution like ours, there is always the possibility that my own views–and those of the other co-founders–are conflated with that of the organisation’s, which sometimes leads to pulled punches, less trenchant blog posts and blander language in newspaper columns.

Since 2010, public discourse in India has become edgy, sharply divisive and polarised. Everyone is quick to paint an unfamiliar or unsavoury opinion as an attack on one’s favoured politician or party. The political campaigns of the 2014 general election had massive online components, and online political entrepreneurs seeking to gain political prominence and spoils of power by attacking ‘the other side’. So Takshashila was on Congress payroll for the BJP’s vociferous online partisans (who we endearingly call “the wrong wing”), an RSS front for the Congress’s beleaguered but spirited online brigade and pro-corruption for Anna Hazare & Arvind Kejriwal supporters. The Communists somehow forgot to attack us, which is perhaps an indication of their irrelevance, or ours. Kabira had gone to the bazaar to ask for everyone’s well-being, but ended up being attacked by them all. There is a lesson in this which we took and we teach.

Another interesting phenomenon was that those who donated to us—including Rohini Nilekani, our first donor—did not once even hint what positions Takshashila should or shouldn’t take. But those who didn’t give us any money often vociferously insisted what political positions we should take for our own good. It is now not too hard to detect political partisans pretending to be broad-minded philanthropists. It is also heartening that there are enough of the latter to lend their support to us, in big or small ways.

I have always found the allegation “you are saying this because XYZ is your donor” an indication of the person making the allegation projecting his own values on his target. As acts of honour and integrity even in today’s famously compromised media industry show, not everyone who draws a pay cheque necessarily dances to the tunes of the owners or donors. For small startups like ours, with low stakes, it is relatively inexpensive to be independent and non-partisan and call things as we see them. Judgement calls on the safety of our members and their families apart, there is little to make us toe anyone’s line. So we merrily advocate what we see as the national interest, and we try to persuade others to see things our way.

This does not mean that we are “neutral”. Our ideological leanings are openly advertised: freedom, a culture of tolerance, an open society and strengthening India’s national power. These set of ideas can be called “liberal nationalism”, but it is the values that matter, not the label.

It’s not enough to be and act independently and in a non-partisan manner. It is important to be perceived as such by the people we are trying to persuade. That was a problem I had no good solution for until the good Jay Panda, BJD MP from Odisha, gave me an idea from his own experience: set up a Ombudsman with a mandate to deal with complaints regarding these values. The Ombudsman can also solicit informal and formal feedback if he deems necessary. So we instituted a powerful Ombudsman—a trustee with no role in management—who anyone can directly write to. It’s early days yet, but this does appear a good process to manage the tensions that arise from an organisation whose members are making forceful arguments in a politicised public discourse. In our view, “non-partisanship does not mean non-engagement. On the contrary, Takshashila’s policy remains to engage with all political parties while remaining firmly independent of them. We believe that engagement with the political process is an important aspect in achieving public outcomes in a democracy.”

The biggest asset Takshashila has today is the goodwill of its supporters and the credibility among a small section of India’s elite. Our success will continue to come from this, hopefully growing constituency.

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Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?

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Middle India’s political game-changer

Why the Annawalas must endorse individual candidates in the coming elections

This is the original draft of today’s DNA column.

Anna’s candidates

It’s the season for game-changers. Everyone is proposing one. Here’s mine.

After ending his fast at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan last month, Anna Hazare announced that “electoral reforms would be next on his agenda, followed by issues of decentralisation of power, education reforms, labour and farmers’ issues.” If that sounds like a political manifesto, it is. For that reason it must be pursued politically.

Now, Hazare said he can’t afford to stand in elections because he can’t buy votes. Whatever that says about his attitude towards electoral democracy and whatever it says about the claim that the whole nation is behind him, he is entitled to stay outside the ring. His new colleagues, the leaders of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, say that they do not intend for it to become a political party. Which too is fine, for there is value in a non-partisan nationwide movement that eschews identity politics and demands good governance. Will they perhaps endorse a political party? After all, with the UPA government brazening it over a series of huge corruption scandals, will they say “let’s give the BJP a chance”? It is unclear if the IAC or its leaders intend to endorse any political party, but we should not be surprised if they decide not to. Perhaps some of the people on the stage at Ramlila Maidan will contest elections but that’s not going to make a big difference.

The real game changer is this: the IAC should announce that it will endorse one candidate in every single Lok Sabha and state assembly constituency. Not on the basis of party affiliations, but on the basis of its assessment of who among all the candidates is the best choice. Continue Reading →

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Pragati January 2010: Stepping up in Afghanistan

The January 2010 issue of Pragati discusses India’s options in Afghanistan. While there are a number of options ranging from scaling up training of Afghan national security forces to actually scaling down development projects if the United States quits prematurely, editorially, we argue that it is in India’s interests to send combat-ready troops to Afghanistan.

In domestic affairs, we present two perspectives on the demand for the new Telangana state; the challenges before the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir; and the need for an urgent reform of the laws governing political parties.

We’re piloting a new section that presents a synopsis of commentary in the international non-English language media: this month, “alif” has coverage of the Urdu & Arabic press.

There’s a lot more, for you to Read & Share!

It costs you Rs 800 (or US$80 outside India) to get 12 monthly issues of Pragati delivered to your doorstep. If you have not already subscribed, please do. Sign-up instantly at QuillMedia’s secure online subscription gateway—they accept all major credit cards and (in India) debit cards and bank transfers too.

Sign-up for the digital PDF edition (free subscription)

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Experimenting with compulsory voting

Let’s find out whether it works

This blog has long argued that for governance to improve more citizens must vote. So what should we make of the Gujarat state’s decision to make voting compulsory in all local body elections?

Constitutional and philosophical reasons apart (see Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s op-ed for this) this is an interesting experiment and it will be valuable to see what it leads to.

Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and a proponent of compulsory voting calls it a “historic move to strengthen democracy” that will take “drawing room politics to the polling booth level.” But Mr Modi might be making the OMIPP—mistaking correlation for causation.

High voter turnouts might bring about responsive accountable governments because voting rate is a sign of an engaged electorate. But forcing everyone to vote might not have the same effect, because the people are merely forced to queue up and press a button on the voting machine—they are not being forced to “engage”. A non-engaged, apathetic electorate when forced to vote, might vote randomly, whimsically or spoil the ballot.

So compulsory voting might be equivalent to introducing a political wild-card without necessarily improving governance outcomes. The effect might vary ward by ward, constituency by constituency and region by region—it’s hard to answer the question of “who will it benefit?”

The experiment should be allowed so that we can add empirical evidence to the list of criteria we use to assess whether the idea of compulsory voting is a good one.

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Three thoughts on Independence Day

On keeping the republic, getting incentives right and projecting power

For contemplation on Independence Day—the Absent Indian Voter Syndrome; All poor, all backward and the wages of Lax Indica.

From the archive: Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and Independence Day 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

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Voter registration is online

First register to vote. Then make sure you vote

Register to Vote

General elections have been announced. If you are not on the voters list, or are not sure that you are, just go over to Jaago Re and register online as soon as possible. Spread the word. Bug your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours. Nag them until they sign up.

And on polling day, make sure you vote.

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Vote, you fools!

There are no shortcuts to good governance. Certainly not negative ones

A group of well-meaning citizens and organisations came together in Mumbai on 11th January and “discussed strategies for networking, shortlisting common activities and adding value to each others’  core competencies”. Among those present were members from Youth For Equality, Yuva, Association For Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Praja. Also present were incipient political parties like Loksatta, Jago Party and the Professionals Party of India. [Update: See ADR’s clarification at the bottom of the post]

These groups “consensually decided” that  “a pan-India platform of groups, individuals and political parties should be formed  with an  initial focus on Mumbai in the lead up to the April-May Lok Sabha elections.”So far so good. Greater middle class engagement in civic life is a good thing. Until you see that these groups—which includes political parties and a well-regarded election monitoring NGO—“consensually” decided to

4. Have a single point “NO VOTE” campaign for the April-May 09 (Lok Sabha) elections. The plan is to tap into  public disgust with political incompetence by asking people to vote for candidates who add an alias “No Vote”to their name, thus giving voters an option to use a NO VOTE option even though there is no such provision in the Constitution. [via email]

What an astounding waste that will be! Some of the most promising, public-minded young people come together and decide not to vote! Just why couldn’t these ingenious people decide to put up one good candidate and campaign for him? Wouldn’t this send an even more powerful signal to those incompetent politicians?

Isn’t it tragic that when the decent citizens decide to engage in civic activities that they long neglected, they come back to trivialise, undermine and ultimately subvert Indian democracy? The Mumbai meeting did mention some other proposals to improve governance—but the adoption of as wretched an idea as a “no vote” campaign fatally undermines its credibility. The good people behind this ill-considered move would do well to jettison the “no vote” plan when they meet later this week.

On the importance of voting: A common bank of votes & notes, on DCubed; Vote, you fools! here on this blog; Rohit Pradhan’s article in Pragati; V Anantha Nageswaran in Mint

Update: ADR’s Professor Trilochan Shastry writes in an email:

We never said this. There is some mistake.

We are only saying there should be a button on the EVM saying “None of the above”. This is also a demand of the election commission.

If you have been sending out emails on this, please send out corrections as well.

The paragraph you have highlighted below is not from ADR.

Since the minutes of the January 11th meeting are of public interest, I have decided to make them available here, sans phone numbers and email addresses to protect privacy. The minutes indicate that the “no vote” plan was agreed upon consensually in the presence of an ADR representative. Professor Shastry’s clarification is therefore welcome.

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Ballot proof

Guns and votes are not mutually compatible—an acceptance of one is an implicit rejection of the other.

In today’s Mint, Sushant K Singh and Rohit Pradhan have one of the best analyses of the Jammu & Kashmir state election verdict.

The traditional approach of viewing the state as a monolithic entity must be replaced by one which recognizes the heterogeneity across regions and demographics. It is also not necessarily a bad thing: Gorakhpur and Noida don’t vote on similar lines; why should Doda and Srinagar? It is more important to recognize that the rise of parties such as the PDP and the BJP lends democratic voice to hitherto under-represented groups and sentiments.
Many commentators continue to stress the importance of engaging the Hurriyat as a genuine representative of the valley. Not only has the Hurriyat repeatedly refused to participate in the elections, the voters of J&K have forcefully rejected its unequivocal call for boycotting the elections. Certainly, in a democracy, all politics need not be electoral and the Hurriyat has the right to engage in agitational, but peaceful politics. However, the self-serving dogma perpetuated largely by the Hurriyat leadership that it is the sole representative of the valley must be rejected. Entering into a dialogue with unelected apparatchiks of the Hurriyat insults and undermines those who have placed their faith in Indian democracy.
In fact, the emergence of the PDP presents New Delhi with a wonderful opportunity to take forward the political process in the state. With its plank of “soft separatism”—open borders, demilitarization of Kashmir and its emphasis on human rights, the PDP has emerged as a genuine mainstream alternative to the Hurriyat, occupying the same political space, but still proclaiming its faith in Indian democracy. [Mint]

“It is important not to underestimate the challenges India faces in Kashmir” they conclude, but “it is equally important…not to overestimate them.”

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On what is unfortunate

(And why we expected nothing else)

Describing the announcement of state assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir as “unfortunate”, the ‘moderate’ Mirwaiz said, “We expected confidence-building measures like release of prisoners and the withdrawal of laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But they [Indian government] still think that election is the answer.”

What is really unfortunate is that the Mirwaiz, moderate though he may be made out to be, still does not think that election is an answer.

Related Post: On who is out of tune

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