Editorial Pragati Manifesto

A Manifesto for Progress

Our political parties make all the wrong promises in their manifestos. Pragati takes a shot at putting together a wish list for good governance.

The saddest truth about democratic politics is not that politicians don’t keep their promises, but that they make the wrong ones. This is a bittersweet truth we rediscover every election season. There is no connection between good governance and good politics. What voters want is not necessarily what is good for them or the country. And the manifestos of political parties are designed not to take the country towards progress, but to get that party to power.

There are many reasons for this disconnect. Governance is complicated, cause-and-effect can be unintuitive, and it is rational for voters to not make the effort to understand the nuts and bolts of policy-making. Good governance often shows results only in the long run, and our parties are driven by the short-term imperatives of winning elections. They also need to please the interest groups that fund them, as well as the vote banks they are wooing in our fractured, first-past-the-post system. Both usually involve benefiting the few at the expense of the many.

Whichever explanations you prefer, it’s hard not to react with shock and horror when we see the manifestos of our political parties. They are full of short-term populism, with little commitment to making the kind of long-term fixes that our country needs. For that reason, we decided to come up with our own wish list for good governance.

We’re not a political party, of course, and we chose to call this The Pragati Manifesto because ‘pragati’ means progress, and every manifesto should be a pragati manifesto. We’ve gotten experts we respect across 11 subjects to give their views on what the government should be doing in those areas. These suggestions are offered as starting points—and perhaps as an anchor—for serious discussion, and not a definitive last word on the subject. At the very least, it offers a check list of items you can compare to what parties themselves put out.

Here’s our list of areas which our manifesto covers—and below that, a summation of the principles that animate this exercise. (None of this is meant to be exhaustive, by the way. We’ll be happy if they spark a conversation.)

1. Legal Reforms: Shruti Rajagopalan
2. Agriculture: Kumar Anand
3. Foreign Policy: Pranay Kotasthane
4. Economic Reforms: Avinash Tripathi
5. Urbanization: Multiple authors
6. Education: Amit Chandra
7. Gender: Hamsini Hariharan
8. Health: Pavan Srinath
9. Public Finance: Pranay Kotasthane
10. Entrepreneurship: Mohit Satyanand

The pieces linked above contain action points for what a government should do when it comes to power. But more important than these specifics is a larger question: What are we trying to fix? What is wrong with the Indian state?

Our answer is that the Indian state is both too large and too weak. It does too much; and it doesn’t do the things it ought to be doing well enough. In other words, to use terms from political science, the scope of the state is too vast; and its strength is  less than it should be.

Scope, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, “refers to the different functions and goals taken on by governments.” The Indian government takes on too much that should be left to society. Indeed, it gets in the way of society solving its own problems through markets. Its oppressive presence has made us a rent-seeking society instead of a profit-seeking one.

Strength, to quote Fukuyama again, is “the ability of states to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently—what is now commonly referred to as state or institutional capacity.” India lacks this—so much so that, in many parts of the country, the rule of law is effectively absent.

Both of these need to be fixed. The Indian state needs to get out of the way of the people’s natural entrepreneurial energy. Equally, it needs to deliver the rule of law and basic governance that are the sole legitimate reasons for its existence.  We recommend four broad principles that should frame how the party in power approaches governance.

One: There is a moral imperative for the state to be limited

Every act of government is an act of violence, for it relies on taxes coerced from citizens. (All of us pay taxes in some form or the other, even the poorest of the poor.) We are not anarchists, and we accept the necessity of a state to protect our rights, and the violence that its existence implies. But all government action should be taken with an acknowledgment of that violence. Reasonable people can argue where to draw the line, but many uses of state funds—large statues, for example, and thousands of crores in government advertising—clearly do not justify the costs. Those costs are moral costs. Whenever you tout the benefits of any government action, consider these costs as well.

Two: Be strong in what you need to do

The rule of law is the bedrock of society and markets. For most Indians, it is absent. Where it is present, it is dysfunctional. In large parts of the country, this gap has been taken over by insurgents (the Maoist areas and Kashmir) or by criminals, who dominate politics. This is a country where one-third of our parliamentarians are facing criminal charges—while people spend months in jail for sharing posts on Facebook. This has to stop.

Three: Get out of society’s way

Markets are the mechanism by which people in society solve each other’s problems through voluntary action. All that a government should do here is provide the backing of a strong rule of law. The more it interferes in markets, the more people suffer. In fact, all interventions in markets amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Always, consumers at large suffer, while special interest groups benefit.

We have seen the change that the limited liberalisation of 1991 caused. In the sectors where private players were ‘allowed’, such as telecom and airlines, the government now seems redundant. In sectors where markets were not allowed to function, like agriculture and education, we are in crisis. The lesson from this is clear.

Four: Make government as local as possible

In our democracy, there is too much of a mismatch between power and accountability. The state needs to serve the people, and not the other way around. For this, it must be as accountable as possible, and as local as possible. The centre must not hold, and should give more power to the states. The states should devolve power further, to cities and villages. The more citizens are empowered, the less apathetic they will be–and hey, that might just save our democracy.

We need to talk

This is not meant to be a libertarian manifesto, but a wish list for good governance. The experts who’ve written these individual pieces have done so with both exasperation and humility: whether or not you agree with the points they’ve raised, all we ask is that we get talking. Our politics has to get beyond the transactional give-and-take of patronage. If that change does not happen at the top – let’s drive it from the bottom.

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Read the Pragati Manifesto here.

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About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.