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The eightfold path to unlearn public policy paradigms

What are the eight things to unlearn in order to appreciate policymaking better.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

If one wishes to learn about public policy in the Indian context, there are several great pieces to refer to. For instance, Ajay Shah’s blog post Become a public policy thinker in three easy steps or Nitin Pai’s The eightfold path to transforming India are great starting points. However, as someone newly initiated to this field, I am interested in finding out what we need to unlearn in order to appreciate the intricacies of public policy. And based on my observations there are eight paradigms to let go of. This eightfold way of liberating oneself is given below, arranged in no particular order.

Paradigm 0: What I know is golden, so I can’t let go of it.
The zeroth step of course is being open to the process of unlearning. We come with our own biases, shaped by our varied experiences and perceptions. But our experience or knowledge is not be the way the entire world functions. An unrelenting hold on what we have learned is the equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy in economics.

Paradigm 1: Good intentions translate to good policies.
I defer to an inexact analogy here. Good motive is like the potential energy of a stone resting on the edge of a cliff. The stone has the capacity to get work done by virtue of its position. A good policy on the other hand is like kinetic energy of this stone falling off the cliff. Kinetic energy is the capacity to get work done by virtue of motion. Similarly, a good policy has the capacity to get things moving towards the desired outcomes. Just as both forms of energies have the capacity to get work done, good intentions and good policies also have the capacity of accomplishing objectives in public policy. But this by no means implies that they are same. Conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy requires a conservative force to act on it.  Similarly, good intentions need lots of conscious effort before they are ‘converted’ to a good policy. Moreover, the stone resting on a cliff also has the potential to kill if it falls on an unsuspecting passerby below. Similarly, good intentions alone can lead to negative externalities and even lead to an erosion of moral values. For example, the Morarji Desai government in 1977 ordered a prohibition on alcohol with the ‘good’ intention of improving the health of the citizens. But this ban turned out be a disastrous policy, leading to deaths due to spurious liquor, and the subsequent rise of organised crime like smuggling and money laundering, all having roots in the black market of alcohol. So good intentions does not equate to good policies.

­­­­Paradigm 2: The codes of morality that apply within a nation-state should also apply to the conduct between nation-states.
Trying to figure out the ethical dimensions of a US attack on Iraq or Afghanistan is a moot question to ask because the rules of the game differ according to the context. The morality of a nation-state within its boundaries is in most cases, based on a document like the constitution which every citizen and the government is expected to adhere to. A deviation from the principles of constitutionalism is thus considered wrong or inimical to the interests of the nation as a whole. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs and geopolitics are completely different. There is no constitution or a written code of conduct here. Instead, the fundamental law which applies to international relations is that of power.

Paradigm 3: India’s bane is that while the policies are good, their implementation is bad.
A policy that does not envisage its implementation is, in fact a poor policy to start with. Though one needs to discount the time scaling challenge that all governments face, a policy that remains oblivious to the implementation aspect is no good either.  The word implementation is often seen in terms of enforcement capacity and perceived stakeholder attitudes, two variables which are both prima facie known (even if not accurately) before a policy is made. Thus, a policy that does not envisage the role of these factors is by definition an incompetent policy.

Paradigm 4: Certainty and consistency of views over a long period is a hallmark of good policy analysis.
Stephen Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University has written a brilliant piece where he offers the Top 10 things he was wrong about and admits to a change in mind on these matters.  Such humility and lack of certitude is, in fact a boon for policy makers. If empirical evidence proves otherwise, one must replace their deeply held beliefs. And as some great economist (allegedly Keynes) once claimed — “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Paradigm 5: Economics is about picking your poison—capitalism or socialism.
Economics is the bedrock of good policy making. It is the science behind the practice of policy making. The subject, at its core, seeks to understand the study of human behaviour. Economics is certainly not about eulogising the patron saints of economic theories, whether it is Karl Marx or Adam Smith. As long as our efforts are aimed at substantiating why, and how human beings behave, we can aim to have policies that can build the right incentives, nudges or restrictions. Being wedded to an economic theory in the face of contradictory evidence is repeating the folly described in Paradigm 4.

Paradigm 6: A government should be target all its energies at the most disadvantaged section of the society.
More often than not, change happens at the margin. For example, economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s greatly improved the lives of many people in India. But these reforms helped people at the margin — the ones who had access to at least one of three things — money, education or skill. The reforms could not substantially turn around the lives of sections which had none of the three prerequisites. A government can change the lives of many more people at the margin with a lesser effort. This certainly does not mean that governments should ignore those below the margin, but it is equally improbable to expect rapid changes with a one-dimensional strategy. Let the best not be the enemy of the good.

Paradigm 7: What works for me works for everyone else.
Difficulties of perception and memory lend themselves to different cognitive biases to different people. Not all people see the world in the same way and hence do not respond to the same incentives as I do.

Paradigm 8: Politics is a contestation for ideological dominance.
Ideology is just one of the many factors that shapes political opinions. A better definition of politics is that it is a contestation for narrative dominance. It is thus not surprising that it is often the narrative that wins before a party or person does. And since politics is a contestation for the dominance of a narrative rather than an ideology, those who are stuck in ideological silos often end up having egg on their face.

This, I submit is the eightfold path to unlearn and liberate oneself from the bondage. And this in my opinion is the entry point into the world of policy making.


Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Shivaji Asaa Hota — This is who Shivaji was…

A review of the Marathi book ‘Shivaji KoN Hota’ which says that instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 1.16.05 pmPossibly because they can no longer speak for themselves, historically important individuals are susceptible to massive distortions of their thoughts, actions and lives. This process of weaving myths around a historical figure holds particularly true in the case of Shivaji Shahji Bhonsle, the 17th century warrior king who went on to establish a formidable Maratha empire. It is with this aim of decoupling history from the prevalent demigod image of Shivaji that the CPI leader Govind Pansare gave a speech Shivaji KoN Hota? (Who was Shivaji?) way back in 1987. This was later published as a book and has been a Marathi super hit—the 38th edition of the book was released recently.

This book puts the life and times of Shivaji under perspective. The work is not as much a biography of Shivaji as it is an attempt to debunk the myths surrounding Shivaji. It begins with the question—of what relevance is the life of a feudal king in a democracy? Pansare says that although Shivaji was essentially a part of the 17th century feudal society, it was his vision that set him apart from the other rulers. First and foremost, Shivaji was a great state builder. Starting from a small paragana around Pune, he created a formidable political rule that extended throughout Maharashtra and beyond. Second, Shivaji was an administrative reformer. He modified rules of the tilling system in order to benefit the ordinary peasant. Unlike other rulers, he was able to break the traditional control of the Deshmukhs (highest local authority in a village), the Patils (a title for village chiefs), the Kulkarnis (village record keepers) and other dominant classes. Because he was able to break this nexus, he introduced land reforms that put an end to the discretionary exploitation by the village power elite.

In an interesting section of the book, Pansare debunks the myth of an idyllic 17th century village. He contends that before Shivaji’s rule, the king had no control or an interest in the operations of the village as long as the share of taxes duly reached the state coffers. The village economy was largely self-sufficient and exploitative. Under Shivaji’s rule however,  the administration was centralised. Taxes reached the state first and were then devolved to the village levels.  Moreover, the 17th century was particularly miserable for women. Physical exploitation was common and there was no appellate mechanism against the village elite. This changed in Shivaji’s administration. Pansare cites an instance where, for the first time a landlord was punished for the rape of a village woman. There was also a prevalent practice of women being employed as concubines for the soldiers of a travelling army. Shivaji prohibited that practice, disbanded a standing army and encouraged soldiers to take up other part-time occupations in order to retain stronger family ties.

The author’s take on the destruction of temples by invading armies merits particular attention. The conventional revenue earnings for armies came as a proportion of the loot. Hence, armies had an inbuilt incentive for maximum pillage while conducting raids. Naturally, temples which also functioned as wealth banks came under attack during such raids. Destruction of temples also served as a demoralising weapon—if the ‘God’ could not protect itself from an invading army, of what use was resisting such a powerful force? It was for these reasons that, regardless of religion, both Hindu and Muslim armies targeted temples. This is quite the opposite of the present day narrative where a few rulers have been singled out for destruction of temples. The author gives the instance of the Sharda Sringeri Temple which was in fact destroyed by the ‘Hindu’ Maratha army and was rebuilt by the ‘Muslim’ Tipu Sultan. What Pansare says is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma. Once the conquests were completed, there were several instances of kings rebuilding temples in order to assuage their subjects. The author says that even Aurangzeb rebuilt the Jagannath temple in Gujarat besides other important worshipping sites in Mathura and Benaras.

In recent times, the totem of Shivaji has been raised by many Hindu extremist outfits, calling him a Hindu ruler who stood up to the Muslim Mughals. Slotting Shivaji in neat compartments of religious dichotomy is factually incorrect. The book has excerpts of letters by Shivaji which are rich in Persian/Urdu words — like julum, farman, mulaaqat etc. Shivaji also issued ordinances disallowing destruction of mosques and temples.There were many Muslims who were happy with his rule just like many Hindu kings who collaborated to undermine his rule. Again, the message is that the basis for statecraft was a conquest for rajya, and not dharma.

The author rues that today, a cult of Shivaji has formed. Groups of people formed along caste and religious lines calling themselves shivbhakts are not difficult to spot in Maharashtra. However, what is conveniently forgotten is that Shivaji faced severe opposition from caste groups (96 kulis), who refused to be ruled by a person belonging to a caste ‘lesser’ than their own. But today, in their quest for narrative dominance, Shivaji was first appropriated by Hindu nationalists, then he was appropriated by various Maratha groups and then as a Gobrahman Pratipalak— the protector of the cow and the brahmin.

The problem with this competition for appropriation of Shivaji’s legacy by a religion, region and caste has been that while Shivaji was a very popular figure in many neighbouring states 50 years ago, his legacy has now been confined to Maharashtra. Pansare says that it is important that we distinguish the real shivbhakts from fake ones. Transforming a human to a god figure is easy because once a human is made a god, one disposes himself of the responsibility of changing his own behaviour. How can one emulate God, people ask. This is what we should be wary of. Instead of a hollow invocation of Shivaji, it would bode well if we understood his life, his achievements and his struggles. The lesson for all of us is that any nationalism obsessed with exclusion finds it difficult to limit the extent of the exclusion.

After all, history and mythology are separated by a thin, semi-permeable membrane. History enters the domain of the myth when historical figures are transformed into demigods, armed with superpowers. At a latter point, reason, as a means to gauge their power becomes dispensable and their lives attain an axiomatic character—beyond enquiry and too great to be analysed logically. We need to be extremely wary of this process which prohibits us from the spirit of questioning.

P.S.: Govind Pansare was killed by unidentified assailants in Feb, 2015

Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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Deciphering the signals behind Asad Durrani’s utterances

The former ISI chief’s successive appearances on television last week are possibly aimed at building pressure on the US to fulfil their side of the ‘deal’

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Lt. General (retd) Asad Durrani, a former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared on the Al-Jazeera Network and BBC HARDtalk last week, and opened up more than one can of worms in the process. In his interview to Al-Jazeera, he assessed that the ISI harboured Osama Bin Laden and wanted to give him up in exchange of a favourable resolution to the Afghanistan political question. On BBC HARDtalk, when asked about Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, he expounded that statecraft is based on realism, and not on abstract emotions of permanent friendship and trust. What Durrani said during these television appearances did not come as a surprise to people in India who have long suspected that the Military-Jihadi Complex(MJC) in Pakistan is a powerful and irreconcilable entity. Nevertheless, this was the first admission of the nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani State by someone close to the MJC. Officially, the ISI still claims that they did not harbour Bin Laden and played no role in the 2011 raid. Thus, from an Indian perspective, it is not the content of these utterances that matter as much as the the reasons behind the timing of this disclosure.

The first reason for these statements could just be a personal vendetta between Durrani and Gen. Raheel Sharif, who heads the current military establishment, or a feud between Durrani and the ISI chief during the Osama Bin Laden raid, Lt. Gen. (retd) Shuja Pasha. Having figured out that there is nothing to lose personally, this could be a ploy by Durrani to voice his opposition to others in the military. Appearing on HARDtalk, Durrani appears to be critical of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on the grounds that it created more trouble than it killed enemies of the Pakistani State. In response to the military offensive against terrorists following the Peshawar attack, he hoped that the Pakistani military would calibrate its response based on what the terror groups stand for. In his own words: ‘In principle, groups which are ultimately going to be useful in the unity of Afghanistan and groups that are not against the Pakistani state will not be targeted, I at least hope that will not be done because that would be a very silly thing to do’. Such statements indicate differences between Mr. Durrani and the current military leadership. The possibility that these utterances are a part of a personal power play in the Pakistani military elite sounds like a damp squib but one can’t deny the role that personal differences play in such cases. This possibility however, becomes untenable considering that Asad Durrani has been the unofficial mouthpiece of ISI in the past and has served masterfully as a channel of plausible deniability for the MJC. If this modus operandi holds true even today, there are two possibilities that explain the purpose and timing behind these interviews.

The second possibility could be to pre-empt another revelation that might expose ISI’s duplicity further. By taking a stance now, Durrani is attempting to soften the impact that any disclosure which implicates ISI might lead to. When questioned by Al-Jazeera Network’s Mehdi Hasan that was Laden’s compound an ISI safe house, he responded ‘If ISI was doing that, then I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done’. Such statements are meant to shield the ISI against a domestic backlash as Bin Laden still remains an admired figure in Pakistan. What appears to have happened is that the ISI’s plan was to trade Osama Bin Laden at the right time and at a right “price”. What is not clear however, is whether the Abbottabad raid was a result of this deal or a consequence of an aborted one. After Asad Durrani’s outburst, the US seemed to be eager to deny his claims. US State spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quick to assert that  ‘we don’t have any reason to believe that the government of Pakistan knew about the location of Bin Laden’. This evidence suggests that a deal was indeed being negotiated when US took unilateral action, recognising that Pakistan was asking for too much in return.

The third and the most plausible reason could be that a deal indeed took place but Pakistan did not get what was promised. In this context, Durrani rued that ‘there was no co-operation by the US with Pakistan on Afghanistan’ after 2005. Solving the Afghanistan political question in terms favorable to Pakistan was the demand that Pakistan would have wanted in return of Laden’s handover. Since this demand was not met in its entirety, Pakistan now wants to remind US of its side of the deal. Praising Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan, Durrani reminded the US, and the world that Pakistan would continue to support jihadi elements not harmful to Pakistan like the Haqqanis. He even claimed that the Haqqanis were given signals to move out of North Waziristan before Operation Zarb-e-Azb began. Apart from a stake in the politics of Afghanistan, these statements might be aimed at boosting the quantum of US financial aid for the Pakistani military. Since Pakistan has vehemently expressed its disagreement with the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, these interviews could be meant to seek a similar deal between the US and Pakistan.

What happens in the coming days will help understand which of these three possibilities turns out to be true. Meanwhile, a lesson for all of us from these events, to paraphrase Asad Durrani himself, is that ‘Statecraft is not about permanent friends…you play so many games, you keep many balls in the air. International relations are not based on trust’. Serves as a reminder to all of us that amorality is a feature, and not a bug in the domain of international relations.

Pranay Kotasthane is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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The risks of conflating poverty alleviation with economic equality

by Pranay Kotasthane

One of them is an urgent and important problem while the other is a moral question

Takshashila GCPP alumnus Prakhar Misra brought to attention these lines from Pratap Bhanu’s book The Burden of Democracy:

The call for a redistributive politics was often confused between two aims, poverty alleviation and economic equality. In principal, the two are distinct.

It is rewarding to discuss these lines further and understand the differences between poverty alleviation and economic equality. It is rewarding because conflating the two concepts can lead to policies that achieve neither and in fact, worsen the status quo.

The word poverty itself can mean different things to different nation-states. In the current Indian context, some of the biggest challenges are malnutrition, lack of sanitation, homelessness, poor public health facilities and unaffordable education. These deficiencies in the living conditions are broadly classified into what is sometimes referred to as absolute poverty. Hence, poverty alleviation in India would mean enabling people to eradicate these problems from their own lives.

Economic inequality on the other hand can be broadly understood to be the same as relative poverty. When OECD countries worry about their poor, they are concerned with the differences in the incomes between the richest and the poorest. This is because they have largely solved the problems of absolute poverty that continue to plague countries like India. Targeting problems of relative poverty would mean that the rich should take the burden of reducing this inequality in the society as it might lead to the alienation of the poor.

The discourse in India about poverty has conflated between the aims of absolute poverty eradication and relative poverty eradication. This confusion is best expressed in common sensical paradoxes like “How can Indians accept that while some of the richest in India are amongst the richest in the world, some X% of people continue to die of malnutrition everyday?” This is a powerful and emotive argument that tends to veer the discussion towards economic equality. Invariably, this leads to redistributive policies which aim at transferring wealth from the rich to the poor.

In this approach to economic equality lies our problem. Aiming for equality when we have more pressing concerns of absolute poverty is detrimental to the society as a whole. A State that is optimising for poverty alleviation would focus on providing for public goods and rely on private enterprise to generate wealth. Economic growth would be its mantra so that no one is poor on an absolute scale. On the other hand, a State optimising for economic equality would be concerned about the best ways of redistribution alone. Such an approach without economic growth will disincentivise private enterprise, even stalling the process of absolute poverty eradication.

Then there is a larger philosophical question of whether a socialist society where everyone is economically equal, a right way to go? Will it not demotivate those who work harder? Will it not motivate free riders? These are moral questions best left for the society to answer. And even if we assume that a society where economic equality is a reality is the best one, why should we let the best be the enemy of the good?

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Russia’s new military doctrine: an attempt at deterrence

By Pranay Kotasthane

The new doctrine seeks to assert Russia’s position in the neighbourhood and salvage Putin’s position domestically

Only a few days after Ukraine moved closer to NATO, relinquishing its troubled “non-aligned” status, Russia announced its new military doctrine which was signed by President Putin on December 26, 2014.

This update has garnered a lot of attention in the US, EU, and NATO nations, which I argue was its sole objective. A few frantic reports from the US termed this new doctrine as an escalation, culminating in a “Cold War 2.0” or “The New Cold War”.

The updates in the military doctrine by themselves are cursory in nature. First, the doctrine singles out the NATO expansion in Eastern Europe as the primary threat to Russia’s national interest. As a result, military measures such as anti-missile shields, ‘global strike’ concept, plans of placing weapons in space are spotted as the dangers to watch out for. Considering the upheavals in Ukraine and fomenting troubles in Estonia, Lithuania and Moldova, this move is in line with Russia’s previous versions of the doctrine, which explicitly state that protecting Russian “compatriots”, a loose term meaning any ethnic Russian in the former CIS states is a duty of the Russian Federation.

Second, analysts have highlighted that the new doctrine is belligerent because it mentions that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against its enemies if it faces aggression of any type that threatens the security of the Russian State. This is again consistent with Russia’s earlier stance of retaining the right to the “first use” of nuclear weapons. Indeed, deterrence as a policy rests on the foundation of extremely destructive consequences.

Third, a significant change that should be of interest to all nation-states, but has largely gone unnoticed is that the doctrine has put protection of national interests in the Arctic as a priority for the armed forces for the first time. This highlights Russia’s continued focus on the oil & gas market as a currency for global power.

Thus, even if the doctrine does not contain any remarkable changes in Russia’s position, it is significant for other reasons. What’s important is that Russia felt it important to garner attention towards a doctrine that had not changed since 2010. This change might be a signalling instrument aiming at two things. First, buckled by sanctions over the Ukraine issue, Russia wants to signal that involving Ukraine and other eastern European nations in the NATO buildup might have larger repercussions for the world. This is particularly aimed at the fence sitters in the EU, who have supported Russia previously due to their energy dependence. Second, the falling rouble and a resulting looming economic crisis have started hurting Russian businesses badly. This change in the doctrine will help stem the opposition to Putin coming from powerful business circles. A new military doctrine helps Putin consolidate his position, generates public support and possibly prevent a backlash from the oligarchs.

The larger point that the doctrine signals is Russia’s desperation over the crippling sanctions, exacerbated by the falling revenues from oil and gas exports.

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Short term prospects in Pakistan and Afghanistan in response to the Peshawar attack

What happens next in reaction to the gruesome terrorist attack in Peshawar is the question that continues to confound all stakeholders. Here’s a quick assessment of the short term prospects in Pakistan and Afghanistan post the attack.
First, the Pakistan army is likely to ask its domestic proxies like Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba and others to layoff for a while in order to prevent taking a further hit to their authority.
Second, Nawaz Sharif’s position will improve relative to his other political opponents like Imran Khan. His stock will also rise vis-a-vis Raheel Sharif who will now have to face a backlash questioning the purpose and effectiveness of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
Third, there is a possibility of a truce between Kabul and Islamabad as a result of which Pakistan will be asked to reign in the Haqqani Network in exchange of getting Afghanistan’s buy in for going after Maulana Fazalullah, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. But this truce is likely to remain temporary as the Pakistan army will have to consider the entrenched interests of its agents in Afghanistan at a later point of time. In the event that such a truce does not shape up, tensions will rise between all the combatants (state and non-state) along the Durand border.
Fourth, acceptance of the US drone strikes as a measure to eliminate terrorists will now increase. This is because their legitimacy will be pitched against the horrendous acts that the Taliban perpetrates.
Fifth, genuine strikes against the terrorists along the Durand Line will worsen the security situation in that region. This is likely to divert Pakistan’s attention from its border with India for a short period.
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