Review: Missing in Action by Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu S Jaitley - Hindustan Times

Review: Missing in Action by Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu S Jaitley

ByFahad Hasin
Feb 16, 2023 07:29 PM IST

Presenting a theory of why the Indian State is the way it is and does what it does, this book makes a strong case for economic growth

Do you believe that our policies are mostly good but are badly implemented? Pranay Kotasthane and Raghu S Jaitley don’t agree with this ubiquitous idea. In Missing In Action, they argue that bad implementation results from ill-conceived policies that do not account for ground realities. This is one of many policy “myths” that this timely volume busts.

Flags being sold on the streets of New Delhi on the eve of Republic Day in this picture dated January 24, 2015. (Subrata Biswas/ Hindustan Times)
Flags being sold on the streets of New Delhi on the eve of Republic Day in this picture dated January 24, 2015. (Subrata Biswas/ Hindustan Times)

Divided along three thematic lines, Sarkaar (State), Bazaar (Market), and Samaaj (Society), the book provides examples from history, sociology, economics, and political science to present a theory of why the Indian State is the way it is and does what it does. The reader is told about the historical roots of its formation and its “precocious” nature due to democratisation preceding the building of a strong state.

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368pp, ₹399; Penguin
368pp, ₹399; Penguin

India’s founders were keen on leveraging the state to drive social change. An unintended consequence of this, the authors argue, was the Mai Baap Sarkaar (a state that takes on a paternalistic role as opposed to one that’s a restricted service provider) with ever-increasing scope. The Indian state is spread thin; it is weak and ineffective in many places instead of being strong in select areas. Overall, Kotasthane and Jaitley argue, it is a “republic of nos” that is better at restrictive and coercive tasks, is instinctive, socialist (interventionist), and prefers symbolism over substance.

The second theme concerns the value of markets, particularly in relation to the Indian state. The colonial experience, the reader is told, has instilled an inherent distrust towards markets. This section highlights the often blurred distinction between “pro-business” and “pro-market” policies and shows that while the former increases competition and creates a level-playing field, the latter favours incumbents and/or specific sectors. Some fundamental public policy concepts are also covered by leading the reader to counter-intuitive ideas around price controls, property rights, limitations and the paradoxes of Atmanirbharta (self-reliance).

The final theme is the tussle between the state and society in the context of modernisation and social reforms. The authors contend that the state usually mirrors society as opposed to directing it and that there was an inherent contradiction between a “social revolutionary” state and conservative Indian society. Ultimately, the new “idea of India”, they argue, reflects the salience of society over the values espoused by the state. The authors seem to be “thinking out loud” in this section. This is unsurprising given that most of the recent “shifts” in society covered here are fairly recent and have not yet been the subject of academic literature.

Policy books often tend to be dry and technical. This is not the case with Missing in Action, which is accessible, has an entertaining narrative and a heavy dose of humorous Bollywood references. Despite being a “pop-public policy book”, as the authors put it, it is strongly grounded in theory, with substantive ideas from ancient Indian philosophy, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls and Nozek.

Co-author Pranay Kotasthane (Courtesy Penguin)
Co-author Pranay Kotasthane (Courtesy Penguin)

The authors make a strong case for economic growth, terming it a “moral imperative”. They push back against falsely pitting economic growth against other supposedly bigger priorities and highlight the classic — but often overlooked — distinction between inequality and poverty. India’s current problem is absolute poverty, not the “gap” between rich and poor. While redistribution is necessary and unavoidable, it is useless without sufficient growth. The total wealth of the country is still too small. In fact, it is economic growth that will allow the government to fund ambitious welfare schemes. The authors warn against mimicking the debates in developed countries with over $50,000 per capita GDP in our context of $2200 per capita GDP.

The book does not shy away from analysing current schemes and policies either. The authors clearly state their reservations regarding the much-hyped performance-linked incentives. Missing in Action equips the reader with simple but powerful frameworks to evaluate any policy and complements Ajay Shah and Vijay Kelkar’s In Service of the Republic. In sum, it attempts to empower Indian citizens against partisan propaganda and encourages informed public debates.

Fahad Hasin writes on public policy, politics and society and is currently an Associate at IDinsight.

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