Narendar Pani

It’s governance without compassion

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 21, 2016

Food for thought An approach to statecraft. - S Siva Saravanan

A hard, rational state is at work, promising long-term gain after short-term pain — in contrast to Jayalalithaa’s welfarism

Recent weeks have seen an urban focus on two very different approaches to governance: the hard approach of demonetisation and the soft approach of the late Jayalalithaa’s Amma canteens. Underlying these approaches are two contrasting ideas of the role of the state.

Demonetisation is based on the idea of a hard state that does not hesitate to cause pain in pursuit of its goals. There was never any doubt that the removal of 86 per cent of the currency at one go would cause considerable hardship even to those without any black money. The Prime Minister said as much in his television address on November 8. At that time the Government believed, as it informed the Supreme Court soon after, that only ₹10 lakh crore would return to the banking system. This meant the black money that did not return would amount to at least ten times what was annually spent on the MGNREGA Schemes.

This bonanza could be used for big bang initiatives in the next Budget. The people could then decide whether the returns from these initiatives were worth the pain caused by demonetisation. The Union Budget was also advanced by a month, ensuring this decision would be made well before the UP elections. The fact that this bonanza will be smaller than originally expected, if it emerges at all, does suggest things have not gone according to script. But the thinking behind it is based on a rational, if cynical, understanding of statecraft; an understanding that expects people to make rational decisions.

The soft option

In contrast, the Jayalalithaa, or strictly speaking the MGR-Jayalalithaa version of statecraft is based on the idea of a soft state that people have faith in. In this approach the state does not associate itself with any action that causes pain. People are then not asked to make a rational decision on costs and benefits. Instead, there is a flurry of welfare schemes typically designed to deal with the uncertainties of daily life.

The Amma canteens are priced at levels that the poor can afford. They were also kept open in times when much of the rest of Chennai was shut. Extending a similar facility to pharmaceuticals addresses another fundamental uncertainty of urban life: the possibility of a health incident which requires treatment at a cost that the poor cannot afford. The focus in this approach is not on a rational choice based on costs and benefits, but rather on dealing with the uncertainties of daily life.

The instinctive response of most analysts to these approaches is to lean on the side of rationality. The demonetisation exercise has shown how far this preference for rationality goes. Even as evidence of widespread pain grows, the analysis is carried out on the basis of rational choice between short-term pain and long-term gain. The fact that the hundred-odd people who died in queues have no long term to consider does not enter the argument.

Paradoxical judgments

In keeping with this preference for rationality, the soft appeal of Amma canteens and other welfare facilities are dismissed as populism. The fact that vast masses of people can trust a leader with taking care of their needs in times of distress is seen as irrational hero worship. No matter how many elections leaders with successful welfare measures win, they are not believed to have the vision of the rational choice politicians, even when the latter cause great pain, supposedly in the short term.

The conflicting approaches of the hard rational state and the soft state based on trust have their consequences for the way our cities are run. The makers of urban policy are expected to take hard rational decisions and enforce them. They can do so either by stealth or by presenting these decisions as essential requirements of development. This is usually done through glamorous large projects that are expected to represent development. This imagery is so widely accepted that the yardstick is usually no more than how much the project costs; the more expensive the project, the better.

Urban politicians who need to get re-elected are left with the task of covering up the real costs of the project. They tend to fall back on the short-term-loss-for-long-term-gain argument. This has now been used nationally in support of demonetisation but has for long been a part of the defence of every delayed flyover. When this argument falls short opposition politicians raise the charge of corruption, forcing the ruling politicians to fall back on whatever welfare measures they can manage.

The discourse on the urban thus tends to be preoccupied with the amorphous term ‘corruption’ without addressing the core issue of the different approaches to governance.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on December 21, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor