Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Jayaprakash Narayan: Fixing Governance with Reforms and Economic Freedom

Comprehensive legal and police reforms and a financially empowered local government have to be part of the solution

Published: Aug 13, 2013 06:57:47 AM IST
Updated: Aug 12, 2013 07:41:04 PM IST
Jayaprakash Narayan: Fixing Governance with Reforms and Economic Freedom
Image: Harsha Vadlamani for Forbes India

Jayaprakash Narayan
Jayaprakash Narayan is founder and president of Lok Satta Party. He is an MLA from Andhra Pradesh. A former IAS officer, he was on the National Advisory Council for UPA-1, and was part of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2005) and Task Force for the National Rural Health Mission.

Disenchanted as we are with our politics and governance, it is hard for us to realise that we succeeded remarkably well in building a nation and democratic institutions. We did not always fail. We gave ourselves a liberal, democratic and inclusive constitution; over 550 princely states were integrated into India with great ease and no bloodshed; our unmatched linguistic diversity has been accommodated with great sensitivity and wisdom by the linguistic re-organisation of states and a three-language formula; even in recent decades, our federalism matured significantly with states coming into their own; and we achieved moderate economic growth while preserving liberty.

Then why have we failed in many other respects? We need to focus on our initial conditions to understand our governance crisis. Abject poverty, illiteracy, social divisions and universal franchise are an explosive cocktail. Right from the beginning there has been an inherent asymmetry of power between the poor, helpless citizen, and the public servant with a safe job, secure income and awesome power. This is complicated by poor service delivery. Bribes, red tape, harassment and delays are endemic even for simple services.

In this climate, there has been an over-dependence on politicians who seek the vote, because they alone have to go back to the people for a renewal of their mandate.  Politicians should have ideally built a framework for easy, painless delivery of services with sensible incentives and accountability. Instead, they responded by creating a vast party machinery to somehow address public needs in the face of a dysfunctional, unaccountable bureaucracy. Delivery did not improve; but perverse incentives distorted the picture further. Over-centralisation added to our woes. Both the state legislator and bureaucrat thrived in a centralised, opaque system.

Three post-independence failures compounded our governance failures. First, the licence-permit-quota raj was given free rein for over three decades. In our misplaced zeal for ‘socialism’, individual initiative and economic freedom were suppressed, leading to low motivation, rise of the free-loader mentality, monumental corruption, and a stagnant economy. The issue is not capitalism vs socialism; it simply is the failure to define the state’s primary role. The basic functions of state—public order, justice and rule of law, infrastructure and natural resources development, education and health care—were all neglected, as the state sought to take on business functions, and predictably failed in both areas.

Second, halting, half-hearted efforts to decentralise power failed; we are now saddled with the unwieldy 73rd and 74th amendments, which created over-structured, underpowered, and largely ineffective local governments. Third, there was the failure to modernise crime investigation and insulate it from political vagaries.   

Jayaprakash Narayan: Fixing Governance with Reforms and Economic Freedom
Image: Getty Images
UP CM Akhilesh Yadav distributes laptops. Freebies to buy votes are not enough anymore to gain or retain power

The vote is increasingly delinked from public good, and has become a purchasable commodity, as the voter seeks to maximise short-term gains. The vast political machine initially erected to address public grievances in the face of poor service delivery has acquired a life of its own. The machine needs to be sustained by corruption and abuse of power.  

Vote buying alone is not enough to acquire or retain power, as all traditional parties resort to the same tricks. In an era of competitive populism, any party which focuses on infrastructure, economic growth, education and health care, and refuses to offer short-term freebies is at a great disadvantage. As all parties offer freebies, new forms of vote-gathering are needed to gain advantage. In a diverse, tribalised society, traditional social divisions of caste, region, religion or language have become playthings of partisan politics. Divisive politics and provoking primordial loyalties pay handsome electoral dividends. The politics of unity, common good and individuation took a back seat.

Once we accept this analysis, the correctives are self-evident. We need to relentlessly pursue economic freedom and competition. Local governments and communities should be effectively empowered, and a share of tax revenues should be transferred to them.  Once people are in control of their own destiny, and local independent ombudsmen are institutionalised to enforce accountability, things will change significantly. Service guarantees with citizen’s charters and penalties for non-delivery will end extortionate corruption and harassment for simple services, and create space for more rational, ethical politics. Naxals and home-grown secessionists will disappear as people get busy improving their own lives. Comprehensive judicial and police reforms will minimise the law’s delays and ensure fair treatment of all citizens.

But these are not sufficient. If politics continues to be murky, other reforms will happen at a glacial pace. Blaming politicians and parties is fashionable in today’s India, but it does not help. Parties have not taken a vow to destroy India; they are only determined to win elections and stay in power. Given our current level of democratic maturity and a flawed electoral system, parties will have to pay a heavy price to uphold values in public life. Witness Andhra, where Congress is in doldrums as it refused to surrender to Jaganmohan Reddy, or Karnataka, where BJP lost power as it refused to compromise with BS Yeddyurappa. If what is good for the country is bad for parties, we only perpetuate the status quo. We need to create the right kind of incentives for parties. Our electoral system rewards vote buying, freebies and divisions; promotes those with ill-gotten money, criminal links, and caste or sectarian base; and discourages and punishes honest, competent, public-spirited politicians.  

We need to switch over to a proportional system of representation, where parties get seats in proportion to votes with certain safeguards to prevent political fragmentation. Then honesty and political survival will be compatible; real governance reform will be feasible and effective; what is good for the country will be good for politicians; the best and brightest can once again play a vital role in public life; vocal, marginalised sections will find voice; and national parties will have a national foot-print.

(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
  • Srinivas

    Loksatta is the only liberal, secular party that puts Nation above everything else and strongly believes that we can fix the two big problems we have : unfulfilled potential of our people and avoidable suffering. Loksatta quietly made many contributions to governance and politics in India and continues to work in bringing change. You can follow Dr. JP on Facebook at and on See for the party\'s vision, mission and profiles of leaders. See to understand Dr.JP\'s work as an M.L.A in A.P Loksatta members are professionals and think of politics as a means to public service, not private gain. come join us! Loksatta Party is a National Party with presence in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharastra, U.P, Delhi. There are Loksatta members in almost all states.

    on Aug 21, 2013
  • Indian

    All those misinformed and misguided supporters of Modi must read this article word by word, understand, assimilate and start supporting JP and other like minded and capable leaders. There are no short cuts and Modi is never one of that if not a problem. Need less to mention another problem called Rahul!

    on Aug 14, 2013

    I\'ll wait for the day Dr. JP becomes PM for real change to place in India. I have no hope in either Congress or BJP of the future. Both are beyond corrupt and beyond reform, and voters are foolish to think once Modi comes to power, corruption will disappear! You want real change? give new politics and newer parties like Lok Satta and AAP a chance!

    on Aug 14, 2013
  • Prasanna Srinivasan

    Agree completely with your views on things Mr Narayan. But when did ANY political system anywhere in the world, voluntarily cede powers they benefit from - viz. - legislators effecting reform that'd reduce "trading" ability. Barring the likes of a Nelson Mandela, who steps away, it doesnt happen easily. Empowering local communities - power plus finance to back it up - is the way to go. Let us make our own mistakes and fix them, rather than passing blame.

    on Aug 13, 2013
    • Gaurav

      \"Let us make our own mistakes and fix them\" - How? PLease elaborate on the modus operandi.

      on Aug 16, 2013
      • Prasanna

        Dear Gaurav, Thanks for the comment / query. Let me attempt to explain with a light example Let say, zoning rules on parking (recent coverage in a Delhi daily). Let residents / occupants decide in their neighborhood. They may get it wrong on several counts : i) realise public areas are being \"privatized\" through cars parking there. ii) expanding parking reduces road space and or playgrounds for their own kids iii) may conclude charging a fee rationalizes usage (just saying those points). Each of those may not work. It\'ll be the result of their/our own decisions. We won\'t accuse an \"official\" of corruption because we got it wrong. We collect fees directly to use for community purposes - whether planting flowers or making available dustbins etc. We have the money, we decide, we err - \'cos we didn\'t know better and we stop blaming others. It there\'s corruption, its the guy living next door - so we can bring him to book with a variety of measures. Several aspects of civic living, commerce and security are amenable to such a measure. Hope this helps - if its flawed, its my limitations of understanding and not because I\'m a lackey of some political party!!! KInd regards.

        on Aug 16, 2013