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Thursday, Dec 12, 2019

Indian politicians lack good quality policy advice

One hopes that Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda heading a task force for the Congress sets a new culture among political parties.

analysis Updated: Mar 04, 2019 07:59 IST
Kunal Singh
Kunal Singh
The Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to ask Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda to head a task force on national security should be applauded wholesomely. The immediate mission of the task force will be to draft a national security strategy document.
The Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to ask Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda to head a task force on national security should be applauded wholesomely. The immediate mission of the task force will be to draft a national security strategy document.(ANI)
         

In September 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced some new faces to his cabinet of ministers. Some of them have had previous expertise in a particular area of governance. However, the portfolios allotted to them had nothing to do with their expertise. Hardeep Singh Puri, a former diplomat, was sent to the ministry of housing and urban affairs; KJ Alphons, who had experience in housing and urban affairs, was allotted tourism, and electronics and information technology; Satyapal Singh, a former police commissioner, was given the twin portfolios of human resource development, and water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation; and RK Singh, India’s former home secretary, found his new offices in the power ministry and the ministry of new and renewable energy. This cabinet reshuffle reminded me of a problem in a school mathematics textbook: In how many ways can four different letters be put in four distinctly addressed envelopes such that no letter goes in the right envelope?

The Indian polity has traditionally been uncomfortable with the idea of expertise. Most politicians don’t have expertise in any area of governance, and they are assisted by career bureaucrats who are not just generalists but also quite unwelcoming of specialists as lateral entrants. Some of this has begun to change and experts have been inducted in key government positions, especially in the domain of economic policy making. As a result, we have seen the likes of Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian, Arvind Panagariya and Kaushik Basu serve in the government of India. Even some state governments have shown openness to expert voices. For instance, the Kerala chief minister had appointed Gita Gopinath as his economic advisor before she was called on to become the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. However, the idea of involving experts has not percolated to political parties and individual legislators in any significant manner.

This is the reason why the Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to ask Lt Gen (retd) DS Hooda to head a task force on national security should be applauded. The immediate mission of the task force will be to draft a national security strategy document. Once approved by the Congress president, this document will a valuable resource to understand the policy positions of the Congress party. Given that political parties in India are quite flexible ideologically, there is no way to ascertain their views on different issues of importance. And the problem is not restricted to defence and security policies. One does not know, for instance, which political party in India sees slums as cheap entry points into the urban landscape and which sees them as ugly outgrowths of the country’s haphazard urbanisation. It will, therefore, be great if all political parties find some mechanism to embed experts in framing of their policy positions.

Indian legislators lack resources to hire advisors and staff members. Under the Members of Parliament (Office Expense Allowance) Rules, 1988, a Member of Parliament (MP) gets merely Rs 40,000 per month for obtaining secretarial assistance. This is clearly insufficient to hire a sufficient number of research assistants, leave alone experts. A few independent initiatives, like the LAMP fellowship by PRS Legislative Research, have filled the vacuum by providing young researchers to legislators. The problem of finding experts, however, remains.

Advanced democracies have found a number of ways to support both their legislators as well as political parties. Each member of the House of Representatives in the US is provided an allowance to hire 18 full-time, permanent employees. The size of a US Senator’s staff can go as high as 60. Besides, there are staff members for all the congressional committees and also non-partisan support in the form of Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office. In the UK, each MP is allowed to hire up to four staff members. There is also a Royal Society Pairing Scheme in which 30 research scientists are paired every year with individual parliamentarians and civil servants.

Think tanks also play a vital role in formulating a political party’s policy positions. The US has conservative and progressive think tanks which provide the backbones to the Republican and Democratic agendas respectively. Their influence should not be taken lightly. For example, Mandate for Leadership, a book published by The Heritage Foundation, formed the bedrock of President Ronald Reagan’s governance principles. Credible estimates suggest that more than 60% of the 2,000 recommendations in the book were acted upon. The UK has research facilities for different political parties operating out of Parliament itself. Policy Research Unit, for instance, provides research support to Conservative MPs. There can be think tanks outside Parliament affiliated to political parties. An example is the Fabian Society affiliated to the Labour Party. Germany has political foundations attached to six main political parties and are funded out of the federal budget. Among other tasks, these foundations conduct empirical studies on the behalf of their respective political parties.

India does have a few think tanks closely associated with political parties. However, the range and quality of work done could be more robust. It would be great if the latest step taken by the Congress president sets a new trend, and each political party and legislator devotes more energy and resources to developing concrete policy positions.

kunal.singh@htlive.com