Monday, January 7, 2019

Is good governance a political good?

Can good governance deliver electoral victories in India? Would better schools and hospitals or cleaner neighbourhoods or safer streets or better quality utility services or hassle-free access to statutory services help governments retain power? Could these improvements play an important part in keeping governments in power? Is good governance an important enough electoral good?

The answers to each of the above in the affirmative is most often taken for granted and underpins much of the theoretical discourse on good governance. However, it may be worth a re-examination.

Let us assume the median politician. He is unlikely to be intrinsically motivated. His drive is most likely a single-minded desire to be in power. In fact, this is likely true of all but a handful of politicians.

Consider a program to improve student learning outcomes or traffic congestion or law and order or the delivery of any government scheme. Let us assume a system where the same state affairs in each of these areas has been persisting for years. It has neither gotten better nor worse in any significant manner. With a new program, given the weak state capacity, even when implemented with all the best intent, it is very unlikely to have anything like a transformative impact in five years. The impact of such initiatives are likely to be small and diffuse, and hardly visible to the average citizen. Suffice to say, these are really hard problems and bringing about change which is significant enough for the primary stakeholders, citizens, in a short time is almost impossible.

Then there is also the underlying assumption that good governance is a more appealing political good than sectarian/identity based and populist causes. There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, there is a compelling theoretical argument drawing from Mancur Olson's work on collective action that populist and sectarian causes, with their concentrated impact on a cohesive minority,  are likely to exert far greater influence on the politician than good governance, with its diffuse impact on the fragmented majority. 

In the circumstances, the politician's incentive to support such initiatives is limited. In fact, far from supporting, the politician is likely to be put-off by reforms since by their very nature they are most likely to unsettle entrenched vested interests and rent-seekers who are likely his supporters. Also such reforms are also unlikely to favourably tilt the power balance towards another group who are his supporters.

Most importantly, electoral battles are mostly fought on state-wide or country-wide issues, which in turn surface in the most unpredictable manner and from unexpected quarters, and often just before the elections. The emergent factors most often crowd out all else. The politician understands this reality. This is one more reason for the politician to be sceptical of the value of good governance as an electoral strength. 

In fact, it need not actually be the case that electoral verdicts are decided on such emergent state-wide or nation-wide factors. It could actually be that good governance matters. But that's not important. What is of relevance is what politicians collectively believe as determining factors in electoral battles. 

So, is this all a lost cause?

The one scenario of promise arises when the politician (Minister or Chief Minister) gets a bureaucrat who is both intrinsically motivated (more likely than with the politician) and has a good rapport with the politician. Such a bureaucrat can then drive the change with the support of the Minister - sustainable and significant enough reform invariably needs political commitment. However, he will have to take care to ensure that the Minister's important political constituencies are not too adversely affected. Realistically, this should not be a problem given the vast scope of the reform agenda in each of these cases on a state-wide canvas.

The Minister would then have the best of all worlds - the theoretical electoral gains from any reform even while keeping his supporters happy - and leave him with the bonus of this potential electoral gain as he fights to maximise the gains from the emergent 'real' political factors.

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