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How Policymakers Can Navigate The Torturous Terrain Of Politics

20/02/2017 12:57 AM IST | Updated 22/02/2017 9:10 AM IST
Jayanta Dey / Reuters

This is part 2 of a three-part series on the theoretical underpinnings of governance and policymaking. Read part 1 here.

Once our policymakers in the government decide to intervene based on the analysis performed in Part 1, the next task is that of navigating the tortuously uneven terrain of the political economy.

First, in a representative democracy like ours, we the citizens go out to the polling booths and cast our votes in favour of the political party/candidate that we feel can best govern us and ameliorate the multifarious issues plaguing our daily life. The victor goes on to form the government and frames policies, which rather than being aimed at easing the pain of the veritable masses, are closely aligned with the dogmatic beliefs of his/her political party and meet the needs of the cohort of voters that voted for him/her.

Policies are often decided by keeping the following variables in mind: demography of the party's core voter base, economic class of the voter base and topography of the voter base.

For instance, Mr. Donald J. Trump was recently (democratically) elected as the Commander in Chief of the United States of America and a post-factoanalysis of his stunning victory showed that it was mostly the white, low income, inner city group of people struggling with bloating levels of unemployment due to foreign immigration and the vagaries associated with the economic downturn of 2008, that voted for him. As a consequence, Mr. Trump in fulfilment of his poll promises went on to sign an executive order which banned entry into the US by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and banned nearly all refugees for 120 days immigration ; and if multiple reports are to be believed, there is already another executive order in the works which will seek to make obtaining the H1-B work visa difficult for the citizens of South Asian countries like India. Despite these orders being reprehensible and antithetical to the temple of inclusivity, there is considerable groundswell amongst Mr. Trump's supporters—those who voted for him—as he goes about fulfilling his promises in a typical fumbling Trump-like fashion.

Second, political parties usually suffer from the inescapable curse of the "binary system of classification". Major political parties are either aligned to the left or to the right, with a host of other small players filling in the spectrum between the two. In the United States we have the Democrats (left leaning/ centrist) and the Republicans (right leaning); in India we have the Indian National Congress (left leaning/ centrist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (right leaning), and so the pattern continues in other democracies as well. What we often miss in our disquisitions on politics and power is that no political party/government desires persecution of a specific class of people. All promises are good and beneficial to a certain class while at the same time do not fulfil the needs and requirements of another class. Policies are often decided by keeping the following variables in mind: demography of the party's core voter base, economic class of the voter base and topography of the voter base.

[Policymakers] need to understand that what is necessary for a policy to be accepted by the political ruling class is political will.

Third, for policymakers to navigate the undulating and circuitous terrain of politics, they need to understand that what is necessary for a policy to be accepted by the political ruling class is political will. Political will—a catch all phrase— means the determination of an individual political actor to do and say things that will produce a desired outcome which is in consonance with his/his political party's ideology. When the success or failure of a policy/scheme is debated upon, one often hears the term "political will" being tossed around—the presence or lack of it making a policy succeed or putting a spanner in the wheel. It is often believed that political will is the act which produces the good of the nation and its citizens. This is not true. Let us consider two examples to see both sides of the coin:

1. The Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on 8 November 2016, announced the demonetisation of high value legal tender currency in what was touted to be a big and bold attack on the scourge of black money in India. Hundred days on, not only has the inefficacious implementation of the policy left a bitter taste in mouth, but even the desultory rationale behind the scheme has been called out by eminenteconomists. The announcement and the subsequent execution of the demonetisation scheme was an act of strong political will. Mr. Modi showed strong political will in doing what his government believed would be good for the people, never mind the actual results. This was an example of a strong political will producing unfavourable results.

2. In 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) roared to power in the state of Delhi on a plank of anti-corruption in public life and with the promise of citizen centric policies which would benefit the poorest of the poor. One year on, in 2016, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal took the decision to implement the "Odd-Even Scheme" (road rationing scheme) for 15 days from 1 January 2016 in order to defeat the spectre of air pollution that haunted Delhi. And to some extent it worked. The AAP government's road rationing experiment showed that with good intent and public support, innovative policy ideas have space for execution. This was an example of a strong political will producing favourable results.

It is necessary to shed the romantic version of governance and politics epitomised in popular culture and to recognise that all politicians and officials are self-interested actors.

Fourth, a myopic view often persists within the civil society that governments, often, inefficiently frame policies and subsequently execute them. The civil society often demands a cent-percent perfect policy as compared to one that fulfils its intended motive only to a certain degree owing to political compulsions. Policymakers and civil society activists need to understand and internalise the fact that policies and schemes that are perfect on paper will never be realised fully due to the constraints of the political economy. In summary, it is better to solve a problem partially rather than wait for the chimera of solving the problem fully or not at all. It is necessary to shed the romantic version of governance and politics epitomised in popularculture and to recognise the fact that all politicians and officials are self-interested actors.

There have been many a success stories where astute politicians and smart policymakers have got transformative changes done at the grassroots level. This can only be possible when the policymakers learn the craft of navigating the maze of political expectations and balance that with progressive pro-people policies.

The third article of this series will answer the question of how to improve state capacity to execute policies and schemes, and look at potential solutions to simplify and strengthen the supply chain of ideation, policy creation and its cogent implementation.

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