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Democracy, bureaucracy, and State capacity: The false choices we make

Too often, debates on State capacity veer in the direction of setting up a false dichotomy between democracy and efficiency
Last Updated : 02 April 2023, 00:07 IST
Last Updated : 02 April 2023, 00:07 IST

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In recent years, our political elites have demonstrated a growing impatience with democratic norms, particularly democratic deliberation and dialogue. Indeed, political acts, particularly of recent weeks – the complete disregard for parliamentary debate (the Lok Sabha spent barely 30 minutes debating legislation, including the finance bill, this budget session) and an impatience with critique that has resulted in the hounding of civil society, on the one hand, and the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, on the other – are hastening the pace of India’s democratic decline. And as obituaries of Indian democracy are being written, little attention has been paid to the consequences of democratic decline on the functioning of everyday bureaucracy and the larger quest for building State capacity.

Too often, debates on State capacity veer in the direction of setting up a false dichotomy between democracy and efficiency (conflated with State capacity). “Too much democracy”, the argument goes, with its attendant chaos caused by necessary rules of deliberation-negotiation and consensus-building, can become an impediment to State capacity. Indeed, this is the ruse that has been used to legitimise strongman leadership across the globe. It is also an argument that repeatedly creeps into discussions on democracy in India. After all, it is argued, despite curbing freedoms, State capacity has been enhanced -- and the marvels of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and, of course, the achievements of China, are offered as evidence.

But a closer look at how the Indian State and its bureaucratic machine actually work suggests otherwise. By giving up on the process of deliberation and negotiation, which are at the heart of democratic norms, we lose not just our freedoms and capacity to fight for justice but we also ensure that the State and its machinery will be rendered far more dysfunctional than it was, the chaos of democracy, notwithstanding.

My argument stems from the work of Political Scientist Akshay Mangla on the Indian bureaucracy, which has recently been consolidated in an important new book titled Making Bureaucracy Work. Mangla’s work offers a valuable analytical framework to understand bureaucratic behaviours, one that I have learnt from in my own work on bureaucracy and its shaping of the Welfare State.

The heart of Mangla’s argument is built on the understanding that bureaucracies (like all organisations) are bound together by norms – informal rules of the game – that shape bureaucratic behaviour. Norms shape how administrators interact with each other, with their political masters and, most importantly, with citizens. And it is through these interactions that citizen expectations and accountability for public service delivery are shaped.

Mangla identifies two ideal types of bureaucratic norms. Legalistic norms that foster a culture of strict adherence to rules, hierarchies, and procedures, but with little attention to the purpose or indeed to the citizens that bureaucracies serve. Performance, in legalistic bureaucracies, is shaped not in terms of effectiveness and outcomes but in terms of adherence to rules. Legalistic bureaucracies mimic well-functioning bureaucracies in their conformity to rules and can effectively perform tasks that require compliance with rules. But they fail when it comes to complex tasks, particularly where citizen engagement, a deeply democratic process, is necessary.

In contrast, bureaucracies can also foster “deliberative” norms. Norms that encourage bureaucrats to respond to the democratic impulse by working collectively, seeking inputs, consensus and participation from all stakeholders, particularly citizens, and where problem-solving aimed at being responsive to citizen needs are encouraged even if it means rule-bending.

Through empirical work in the northern states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Mangla demonstrates that deliberation, far more than blind rule-following, enables bureaucracies to perform complex tasks in ways that are genuinely responsive to citizens. In my own work on the Indian State, it is amply visible that while legalistic norms can, if pushed, ensure that schools, toilets and health centres are built, it only through deliberative practices that the real barriers – social divisions in our deeply unequal setting, power asymmetries that encourage bureaucratic misbehaviour such as absenteeism, corruption and an apathetic approach to tasks – can be overcome.

Legalistic norms reify rules to a fault, making paper-based administrative compliance the core purpose of bureaucratic engagement. This is what makes bureaucrats refer to themselves as “post officers” pushing paper rather than “serving” citizens. But the democratic costs on citizens are far greater. For legalistic norms lock citizens into a labyrinth of paper, rules, and procedures rather than seeking inclusion, justice and participation.

Bureaucracy in much of India has traditionally been steeped in legalistic norms, albeit with inefficiency. Strongman politics can at best make legalism more efficient. But it encourages an impatience with deliberation. Thus, even the most “efficient” strongman political regimes can at most ensure that we build the toilets, create the digital infrastructure. But they fail when it comes to what high-capacity States should do -- ensure open defecation-free, clean drinking water, high-quality human capital (health, education and nutrition) and, above all, ensuring that the most marginalised accesses schemes made in her name. These goals require bureaucracies to overcome social divisions, collectively problem-solve, solicit feedback, and build consensus.

In other words, they require bureaucracies to shed reified legalism for greater deliberation. And at its heart, deliberation is about preserving and affirming democratic norms and aspirations. Indian bureaucracy has never achieved this democratic ideal, but within a democratic framework, at least the aspiration gives citizens the opportunity to demand deliberation. Without democracy, even these privileges are lost.

The expectation that a less democratic, low-capacity State can endow itself with the capacity to do what the State ought to do in a complex and unequal social setting is a falsity spurred by a deep desire to legitimise undemocratic political regimes. The nation has much to lose -- including its hopes of a high-capacity State -- if it gives up on democracy.

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Published 01 April 2023, 18:15 IST

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