Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ugly duckling hopes to be a swan

Many many people question the value of democracy in a country like India filled with poor, illiterate, low information people. This thinking can be logically extended to the necessity of a popular ballot. After all the elections will consume of the order of $5 Bil. Why do it?

One answer to the above question is that it demonstrates at least one area where the Indian state does a gargantuan job reasonably well (also getting better with time with further scope for improvement). Heavy-weight candidates lose elections by a 1000 votes and accept the result without comment. This is such a remarkable fact...that it is ignored for the most part. 

The Economist is inspired by the election process (if not the headline candidates) and inspects the functional parts of the Indian state and considers how to improve the non-functional parts. Excellent advice for the most part.

One thing that did not merit a few bytes is the importance of (appearance of) non-partiality. The reason the Election Commission is so widely respected because it calls out ALL the bandits in equal measure. Thus both Azam Khan (muslims won Kargil war) and Amit Shah (hindus should consider taking revenge) have attracted the maximum penalty. In a country like India it is essential that the government is fair and seen to be fair. Nothing else will do.


On the face of it, such a triumph is puzzling. Ask Indians about the capacity of their state, and the typical reaction is dismissive. Much else organized by public officials is notably shoddy: try making use of state-run schools or hospitals, getting help from a policeman, or relying on food-subsidy schemes. Corruption, waste, delays and mismanagement are depressingly common....
How can India get the electoral process to work so well, when much else is done so badly?


One answer is that elections are narrowly focused tasks of limited duration that are regularly repeated. Where similar conditions hold, bureaucrats prove similarly successful.

A second answer is that state employees respond well when given tasks of great prestige and put under careful public scrutiny. Thus India’s space agency last year launched a spaceship to Mars which continues on course, for a remarkably small budget. Similarly, public-health officials recently announced that India had eradicated polio. 

A third answer is that bureaucrats succeed when free from political meddling and corruption.

The electoral process may hold lessons that could be applied elsewhere. One is the value of setting a simple, well-defined target. How about next telling officials to reduce by ten places a year India’s rotten ranking of 134th (out of 189) on the World Bank's “ease of doing business” index? 

Another lesson is the importance of transparency. It is harder for politicians to meddle and steal when bureaucrats, like election officials, are under intense public scrutiny. Extending the country’s right-to-information law, however embarrassing the rot that has been exposed, has proved immensely valuable. 

Last, bureaucrats become more efficient, and less corrupt, when they lose discretionary powers.
.....

regards

The contrast with bloody elections experienced by the neighbours—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even the Maldives—could not be more stark.
On the face of it, such a triumph is puzzling. Ask Indians about the capacity of their state, and the typical reaction is dismissive. Much else organised by public officials is notably shoddy: try making use of state-run schools or hospitals, getting help from a policeman, or relying on food-subsidy schemes. Corruption, waste, delays and mismanagement are depressingly common. Notice, too, the embarrassing failures of India’s navy, plagued by fatal accidents in the past year, the prolonged lack of investment in the national railways, or the state’s failure to build enough roads, power lines or ports. How can India get the electoral process to work so well, when much else is done so badly?
One answer is that elections are narrowly focused tasks of limited duration that are regularly repeated. Where similar conditions hold, bureaucrats prove similarly successful. One example is the ten-yearly national census; a newer success is a scheme to build the world’s largest biometric database, which has enrolled some 600m people, scanning their eyes, fingerprints and more. (Whether this data will be put to good use is another matter. It is worth noting, too, that much work was done by private contractors overseen by public officials.) A second answer is that state employees respond well when given tasks of great prestige and put under careful public scrutiny. Thus India’s space agency last year launched a spaceship to Mars which continues on course, for a remarkably small budget. Similarly, public-health officials recently announced that India had eradicated polio. A third answer is that bureaucrats succeed when free from political meddling and corruption. The Election Commission, like the central bank, is independent. And whereas policemen spend much of their time collecting bribes to pay to their superiors, election officials have neither big budgets to divert, nor much opportunity to extract bribes.
The electoral process may hold lessons that could be applied elsewhere. One is the value of setting a simple, well-defined target. How about next telling officials to reduce by ten places a year India’s rotten ranking of 134th (out of 189) on the World Bank's “ease of doing business” index? Another lesson is the importance of transparency. It is harder for politicians to meddle and steal when bureaucrats, like election officials, are under intense public scrutiny. Extending the country’s right-to-information law, however embarrassing the rot that has been exposed, has proved immensely valuable. Last, bureaucrats become more efficient, and less corrupt, when they lose discretionary powers. Those who organise elections have no discretion to decide who is allowed to vote or where; they are only supposed to ensure it all works efficiently, leaving little incentive for people to bribe or bully them. Whoever wins this year's election could do worse than look at the electoral process itself as a model of how to sharpen up India's bureaucracy.
- See more at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/04/economist-explains-1#sthash.B7JUWtsd.dpuf