What will it take for India to build a 21st century state? Today, there is a well-established consensus that the Indian state needs deep-seated administrative reforms. From early on in his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi identified this as one of the top priorities of his government. Back in 2016, he had powerfully declared that India “cannot march through the 21st century with the administrative systems of the 19th century”.
Indeed, as India navigates its way through the next decade, it will need to confront head on the consequences of unequal growth, rapid urbanisation, climate change and technological advancement that have come to define the 21st century. At the same time, we still face the stark realities—and unfolding consequences—of a vast, unfulfilled human development agenda.
Perhaps inevitably, the history of failure in fulfilling even the most basic sovereign functions (such as law and order) and in the delivery of core public services has severely compromised our own capacity to imagine and invest in the possibility of a genuinely capable, responsive and accountable state. But, this disenchantment with the Indian state has only deepened its dysfunctionality.
On the one hand, it has given rise to a paradigm of reform that tries to strengthen the state while literally trying to get it out of the way where it matters the most. On the other, we continue to massively over-intervene and centralise processes of decision-making and delivery, precisely when what we need is more devolution and flexibility. The problem is that the more we try to circumvent or outsource the state, the more our solutions entrench rather than challenge the very structures, systems and culture that rendered the state incompetent in the first place.
This is best encapsulated in the Modi government’s mantra of ‘maximum governance, minimum government,’ which ends up perpetuating an imagination of government as a ‘bloated bureaucracy’, an overpaid, under-worked and incompetent organisation that ought to be minimised by out-sourcing, privatisation, and technology. Yet, the reality is that the Indian state is remarkably thin. Compared to other G20 countries, India has the smallest number of bureaucrats per capita. The first challenge of building state capacity in India, then, is not downsizing the state but right-sizing it. At a minimum, this will mean investing in public institutions, personnel and processes. But, building state capacity is not just about getting the numbers right but about making sure that these positions are staffed, skilled and empowered in ways that are fundamentally different to how the bureaucracy is organised today.
What does this mean in practice? If policy-making is usually framed as a question of balancing trade-offs, when it comes to state capacity, we would do better by thinking more in terms of balancing critical tensions. The future of the Indian state will depend significantly on how we negotiate these tensions and the nature of the compromises that we strike. Consider the following.
Generalists versus specialists
One of the most widely held beliefs about the Indian state today is that it is simply not skilled to deal with the complexity and the requirements of 21st century economy and society. Lateral entry that replaces the generalist babu with specialist expertise is now a favoured approach. Moreover, it is believed that lateral entrants can break the bureaucracy’s monopoly over top-level policy positions and thus incentivise competition, and that specialists can be a source of innovative ideas and can bring strategic thinking into a system that has traditionally been inward looking and focused on the short term.
But there are genuine tensions at work. Does expertise adequately substitute for administrative, field-based experience, for building networks through the bureaucratic and political system and for the deep institutional understanding this brings? Moreover, if expertise is what’s missing from policy design, then reforms must confront a bigger institutional challenge: the hierarchical, silo-driven approach that reduces complex, multi-sectoral problems into one-size-fits-all schemes. Expertise will only improve policymaking, if policymakers can absorb ideas, broker political compromises and experiment with inter-sectoral approaches. This is the antithesis of the current bureaucratic culture, but the answer may lie in drawing on the strengths of a generalist bureaucracy, which is embedded and activated within a much more rigorous and agile public knowledge ecosystem.
Accountability and rules versus motivation
Beyond incompetence, the most powerful source of frustration with the Indian state and the roots of its failures can be traced to corruption and lack of accountability. The image and reality of the demotivated, unruly and indisciplined bureaucrat who shows up to work but rarely and that too mostly to seek bribes rather than be responsive to citizen needs has come to dominate the discourse on reforming the Indian state.
Reforms require ‘disciplining’ unruly bureaucrats to ensure they are accountable to citizens. The pathways are often different. There have been important, indeed pathbreaking, efforts to make the state more visible to citizens and empower citizens to directly question bureaucrats through greater transparency. More recently, technology with its biometric attendance and real-time monitoring has emerged as another magic bullet.
But this excessive focus on disciplining the unruly bureaucrat sits in tension with the challenge of motivation. Discipline necessitates rules, hierarchy and centralisation. But hierarchy and centralisation also entrench a culture of apathy and weak accountability. It isn’t uncommon for bureaucrats in India (across levels of responsibility) to describe themselves as no more than “post officers” or cogs in the wheel responding to orders rather than citizen needs. This creates a work culture where bureaucrats can legitimately cast themselves as passive “order followers” rather than active agents of change. Motivating the bureaucracy and creating a culture of responsiveness requires much more than discipline. It needs cultural shifts and investing in challenging underlying norms of bureaucracy. A balance thus needs to be struck between discipline and motivation.
Centralisation versus decentralisation, accountability versus discretion
Rules and discipline present us with another tension, that of centralisation. Following rules inevitably means that discretion is curbed. Yet, the challenges the Indian state confronts requires a far more decentralised state architecture. For a country as large as India, the Indian state is far too centralised and power in the Indian state is designed as a top-down, centrally empowered structure. A top-down system inevitably reduces all its functions into logistical, one-size-fits-all scheme-based approaches. But the challenge of a 21st century state requires far greater agility, innovation and responsiveness. It needs a state that is responsive to feedback loops, able to take quick decisions and innovate with technology. Centralised systems are the antithesis of this. There are trade-offs between disciplining from the top and building accountability through discretion. The latter will only be possible through investments in the state on the ground. Through improved recruitment, better skilling and most importantly, greater powers being devolved to the state and the local level – just as our collective frustrations with the state have sought to curb precisely such powers and discretion.
In the end, however, we cannot allow these frustrations to get the better of us and give in to the search for quick fixes. We also need to stop seeing the genuine tensions outlined above as obstacles and hindrances and see in them as vital opportunities to seriously reimagine and reinvest in the Indian state.
Yamini Aiyar is the president and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Mekhala Krishnamurthy is Senior Fellow and Director of the State Capacity Initiative at CPR. Views are personal.
This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. ThePrint.in is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here.