Tuesday, October 15, 2013

One idea in eight stories

Published here on October 4, 2013.

The term ‘governance’ gained currency several years after I started studying political science. I may have first heard it used when I was hired as a researcher on a now-classic  multi-country project on governance in South Asia. I had such a lowly part to play on the project that it really didn’t matter that I had no idea what it meant. I came to understand that while government was the structure and framework my political science classes had taught me, governance was what government delivered. There was no good governance or bad governance. Governance existed by virtue of being delivered; if government was not delivering on its functions, governance wasn’t happening, didn’t exist. Now, twenty-five years later, everyone talks ad nauseum about good governance. The truth is I still don’t have a text-book, “expert” sense of what it means.

Never having formally learnt a pithy definition that I can put to work, measuring the government’s performance, in the time-honoured Indian way, I turn to the stories from mythology and history that are deeply embedded in my consciousness. What do they tell me about what to expect from my government?

Once there was an Emperor who built himself a new city. In that city, he built a special place for teachers and thinkers from different places to meet and exchange views. He dreamt of building a new syncretic way of thinking based on their best and their common teachings. In his heart, their incompatibilities were outweighed by the possibility of their confluence. We remember Akbar for many things, but most of all, he stands out in our memory as a person who wanted to make space in his empire for every faith and every school of thought.

And it’s not just about religion and secularism. It’s the idea that all are equal in the eyes of the state—irrespective of sex, age, caste, faith, class, language or any of the other. To me, bringing people together, and not dividing or ghettoising them, is an important political and policy value. The minimalist corollary of this is not to discriminate on any of these bases. The maximum extension of this is to facilitate everyone’s participation and to invest in consensus-building and consultative decision-making.

A very long time ago, kings sitting in Pataliputra imagined, directed, strategized and created an empire whose borders look incredibly like those of modern South Asia. They had no telegraph, no photography and not even horses. They pulled this empire together through conquest, but their genius lay in holding it together. The Mauryas did this by creating a clear administrative structure where every level and office knew its jurisdiction and where every functionary knew their work, who was reporting to them when and to whom they were expected to report and on what schedule. Well-established lines of reporting, feedback and information sustained the system.

Work is so much easier for governments in this information age. Government works when public servants are able to communicate and implement policies across jurisdictions. It works best when citizens are able to engage with these processes and inform them. Indispensable to this end are clear maps of authority and lucid delineation of duties—as well as rights.

A single road connects Chittagong to Kabul. It was said of the king who got it built that in Sher Shah Sur’s kingdom, an old woman could safely walk highways at night carrying a basket of gold on her head. The elaborate multi-level structure of administration created by the Mauryas was now supplemented by infrastructure development and codified systems of revenue collection. His dynasty was short-lived, but his administrative legacy makes Sher Shah one of India’s most celebrated rulers.

It is the small things, the boring details that make government effective. The road that is paved. The garbage that is collected. The tax assessment that is clear. Comprehensible procedures for every transaction. Beyond the vision statements, laws without loopholes and unobjectionable policies, the work of government is done everyday in individual transactions and exchanges.

He did not make the promise in person but in a guest appearance in a dream. But when the venerable sage came to claim the kingdom he’d been promised in that dream, Harishchandra did not hesitate and gave it all away. Selling his wife, his child and himself to meet the sage’s demands and honour his promise, Harishchandra brought the same integrity to his work at a crematorium when he insisted on his wife paying tax to cremate their child.

The proprietorial sale of wife and child make me flinch, but combine Harishchandra’s commitment to truth with Gandhiji’s transparent introspection and you have a quality of integrity that public servants must have. The Right to Information would then be hard-wired into them, and their inner Lokpal would suffice—no need for a monster institution with all kinds of powers.

All over the northern part of the subcontinent are strategically located rocks and pillars that took his words and ideas out, in multiple languages and scripts, to those in his land and those who visited it. In addition, these edicts were read out to the people from time to time. There could be no doubt that Asoka, who saw everyone in his empire as his children, tried very hard to communicate with them.

It is not enough to have good intentions; it is very important to communicate them. In recent decades, how many large budget projects have been launched without the initial field assessments and expert reports shared? The will to communicate, to respond, to engage is conspicuously missing. That there might be questions or objections or that there might be alternative views is rarely taken on board. We are left fighting decisions after they are made, rather than engaging with the process of making them.

One morning, he heard of a husband’s taunt to his wife who had stayed away all night, “I am not Rama to accept my wife after she spent a night elsewhere.” Stung by the thought that someone in his kingdom was sceptical about his actions and motives, and moved to respond with action, Rama exiled a pregnant Sita.

I now read this problematic episode from the Uttarakandam of the Valmiki Ramayana as an illustration of how patriarchal our traditions are but what it also shows is that kings were meant to respond (with tangible action) to public opinion. It was one person’s opinion, but it was important enough to hold up a mirror to the king, who felt obliged to respond. That is the only good thing we can take out of this story, and we must.

By omission, this story also underscores the importance of justice and rule of law. Should responsive action be summary justice? Following procedure, listening to both sides, allowing people to defend themselves—qualify a response as appropriate. A fair response is also a proportionate response. To have explained himself may have been a proportionate response, and also fair to Sita. Disproportionate responses please some but are unfair to others.

Backed by an army of friends and family, faced with an army of friends and family, Arjuna’s resolve wavered. He put down his bow and asked, “What is the point?” And the answer was: The point is to do your work. Your only entitlement is to do the work in front of you, without expectation of reward. It is more important to do your work than to agonize and strategize and pontificate, the charioteer’s teaching suggests.

The best stories are fine clay and can be shaped as we wish. Anyone who has been given the run-around to get work done to which they are entitled and anyone who has been trying to figure out who is supposed to do what work in an office would like to use this one to say to people in public service: Please do your work properly. If governance must have a very simple definition, surely it is this: things working as they should.

Whoever approached him with a request was sure to go away satisfied. One morning, he tore off the armour he was born with and gave it to the mendicant who was seeking to secure his son’s life. On another, he promised his mother he would leave all his half-brothers unharmed except one, so that she would always have five sons. Karna’s generosity stuns, every time you hear the story.

The generosity of kings is repeatedly extolled. Travellers to Harsha’s Kanauj wrote about the grand assemblies where he generously gave away food, clothing and wealth to everyone who came. Giving is important because redistribution of wealth in order to provide for everyone is an important duty of the state. Whether you call it development work or social welfare, taking care of those in need and those in distress is an inalienable duty of government. Caring government is good governance.

And what is the role of citizens in ensuring the quality of governance? After all, they say, “yatha raja tatha praja” (As the king, so the people) and that “people get the government they deserve.” And the distance between those who rule and those who are ruled has shrunk so much that citizenship must matter.
The relationship between citizenship and governance is a symbiotic one. Citizenship is entitlement, but it is also public service. It is ownership and it is responsibility. Government works when citizens make it work—holding representatives and government functionaries accountable; engaging with law and policy; taking responsibility to vote and participate, and being responsible and honest consumers of government services. Good citizenship enables good governance; and apathetic citizenship reinforces governance failure. Which one do you choose today?

PS: None of my stories feature women as agents; they are merely objects that are sold, exiled or protected. I noticed that, did you? If we cannot come up with stories starring women, how will our daughters know that they too can be rulers and decision-makers? What are the stories of women you would bring to this discussion of governance?

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