Governance is critical to the progress and well-being of society. Yet the term eludes comprehension in popular perception. What exactly is governance? In development perspective, it is like air - you can’t see it but when air goes foul it stinks and affects your health and wellness. Likewise, deficiencies and distortions in governance feed inefficiency and hopelessness in the society.
Nations, corporate entities and non-governmental organizations are engaged in promoting progress and prosperity for people. Stakeholders vary, strategies are re-calibrated to align with the specific mission and changing environment impacts the direction and pace of growth. The know-how, both technical and professional, keeps evolving. Thought leaders and researchers identify ‘governance’ as the critical success factor for accomplishing the mission of any entity.
People often associate governance with government. But in reality, governance is much larger in scope and covers a diverse range of domains such as public administration, corporate management, service organizations, academic institutions, professional bodies and any other form of organized human collective.
The World Bank has been analyzing the Governance Quality of Nations since 1996 through the World Governance Index (WGI). The matrices of governance that the World Bank monitors are clustered into six indicators, namely Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law and Control of Corruption. Extensive deliberations and research led by Daniel Kaufmann and his team went into identification of the indicators; there is a divergence of views among economists and policy planners on the robustness of the approach. Nevertheless, as a measure of relative position and progress achieved by nations, the index does serve its purpose.
The World Bank defines governance as “the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised”. A very simple definition at that, but holding deep implications for governments and policy makers around the world. The three broad pillars of governance considered for tracking the index are (i) the process by which governments are selected, monitored and replaced, (ii) the capacity of governments to formulate and implement public policies effectively and (iii) the respect and compliance citizens demonstrate for the institutions of governance.
Except for an improvement in the score for corruption perception, India’s position on the global governance indicators more or less remained unchanged within a narrow range over a period of 10 years to 2016, according to World Bank data. Statistics like benchmarking can be tricky, you can celebrate mediocrity if you set your sights on those who are at your level or below; but to become as breakout nation, sights need to be set on the best-in-class.
Let us briefly examine the six constituent elements in the World Governance Index, from an Indian perspective.
Firstly, voice and accountability in governance relates to how strongly the citizens feel empowered to participate in selecting their government,freedom of expression and association they enjoy and their empowerment to reject or change their preference of elected representatives periodically. Being the world’s largest democracy with experience of massive elections over decades, India has reasons to feel proud on this count.
But a look beneath the veneer of ‘free and fair’ elections would indeed reveal the filthy underbelly replete with manipulations, feudal intimidations, play of money power and brazen sectarianism. The system of “first-past-the-post” along with contrived fragmentation of votes has potential to create a dichotomy between electoral results and the true will of the majority of voters.
It is perhaps time to look at how to enlarge the representative nature of the mandate through structural reforms to the process of voting. There are many options like proportional representation or preference voting. In proportional representation, the election outcome would better represent the broad spectrum of political opinion. In preferential voting, the voter has a chance to indicate, say up to three choices, in their order of preference. The voting preference gets transferred to alternate choices till the winning candidate emerges with the true majority of more than fifty percent of votes polled.
In order to expand the size of legislative representation to reflect the huge increase in the number of voters over the years, the existing number of elected seats in the lower house could be increased by 25%. We also should seriously consider how to broad-base the induction of diverse talent through an appropriate system of proportional representation.
Secondly, political stability and absence of violence/terrorism as a factor of governance measures perceptions among citizens of the likelihood of destabilization or violence including terrorism. India has a prevailing sense of political stability; we have stood through ebbs and tides of economic and social challenges, but remained broadly a soft and consensus-driven polity. Apart from periodic mood swings, mostly out of emotional manipulations by vested interests, we have remained a nation by and large in the middle ground of political opinion. Yet according to the Global Terrorism Index (2018) compiled by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, India is placed seventh in the list of nations most at risk from terrorism and violence. Terrorism is taking on new forms with cyber attacks being the latest and perhaps one of the most virulent. The index justifies India being bracketing with the top terrorism-prone nations by quoting over 50 different terrorist groups carrying out at least one attack in the period under study.
India’s alertness on terrorism’s many routes has no doubt improved substantially over the recent years. But along with effective monitoring and global intelligence sharing, we need to address the root causes behind sectarian indoctrination of any sort. Majoritarian rhetoric is as toxic as pseudo-secular posturing; both are ploys to reap political dividends from divisiveness. Only education and empowerment of the citizens, fostering a culture of empathy and inclusion along with transparent processes of governance can insulate people from susceptibilities to emotional manipulations.
Thirdly, government effectiveness as a dominant factor in governance cannot be taken for granted. It includes the quality of government service, competent policy formulation and implementation in a fair and equitable manner. The World Bank Government Effective Index assigns a composite score based on a holistic assessment of effective governance. As per 2017 report (the report is brought out every two years), Singapore was ranked the highest with an index value of 2.21 and Somalia the lowest with -2.21. India’s score was just above the median value of -0.02. India has been rated in the mid-range with rank of 80 among 193 countries.
Government effectiveness is primarily an outcome of the environment - the robustness and resilience of the structure and processes of government. It is influenced significantly by developmental parameters like education and income distribution, political structure, gender and ethnic diversity as well as the size and competence of bureaucracy.
The process of how the political and bureaucratic leadership evolves has a high impact on government effectiveness. A system that provides opportunity for individuals with empathy, inclusiveness and ethics to rise up through both political and administrative ladder would lay a solid foundation for sustainable governance effectiveness. The emphasis of cognitive competence over social and emotional competence in the civil services selection process needs to be reviewed; civil services roles need a range of behavioral skills and leadership competencies which need to be assessed at the time of entry. Many cases of emotional incompetence have been reported in people who assumed bureaucratic roles based on civil service examination results with flying colours.
Fourthly, corruption has a corrosive effect on governance across countries. Countries with higher scores on control of corruption index have in general higher government effectiveness. More open and transparent societies are likely to be better at delivering public services. In India a milestone in governance quality improvement was the passage of Right to Information Act. It has empowered people to seek answers and demand accountability on governance.
On the World Bank’s corruption indicator, India has improved its ranking by 13 positions over the decade to 2016, moving to 111 from 124 among 214 regions. In its latest report, Transparency International has assigned 78th rank to India as per its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) - 2018 among 180 countries in the world. The point to note is that in both reports, India’s global positioning on corruption is in the median range leaving a lot of ground to cover.
In a study by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden comparing the regional variance in corruption perception among Indian States, Kerala with a composite corruption score of 2.4 was the least corrupt state in India while Bihar with a score of 6.95 was the most corrupt. The mean score for the 20 states covered by the study was 4.9. Citizen awareness of opportunities and administrative processes, a bureaucracy that is broadly representative of the ethnic mix, a culture of inclusiveness reinforced by extensive socialization through public education, a lively grassroot level political process, a fair degree of positive social activism and an alert media contribute to an ecosystem that reduces corruption proneness in Kerala significantly below the national mean.
Fifthly, a robust, transparent and consistent regulatory process contributes to upgrade of governance practices. India has the dubious distinction of being one of the most legislated nations in the world with a plethora of laws, which get added routinely. If the laws and regulations on traffic were implemented strictly, our roads would have been as orderly, safe and disciplined as in most civilized nations. But enforcement and equity are not yet recognized by Indian society at large as integral parts of a civilized and law-abiding society. Regulatory slackness reflects on every aspect of shoddiness in the Indian public life. Probably, we have miserably failed to teach our children civic sense and finer values of social harmony either at home or at school.
The quality of civic leadership and the will of political parties to look beyond immediate electoral gains are fundamental to good governance. How shortsighted our political class is can be judged from the eagerness demonstrated by the States to wriggle out of a stringent and powerful Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 which was based on the recommendations of the Group of Transport Ministers of States. It introduced heavy fines for drunken driving, driving without license, dangerous driving, over-speeding, etc. Most states have done their best to water down provisions of the act to promote populism at the expense of public safety and health. There is a worrisome gap in the competence of political leadership at various levels of the power structure.
Sixthly, rule of law is what differentiates a safe and secure society from a free-for-all scenario. The World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2019, an annual series measuring the rule of law based on the experiences and perceptions of the general public and in-country experts worldwide, has assigned a global rank of 68 to India among 126 countries assessed. They have used four criteria such as accountability, just and equitable legislation, open government and accessibility and impartiality of justice administration. Denmark tops the rankings and out of the five top ranks, four have gone to Scandinavian countries. India is perched in the middle of the pack. There are large tranches of land where the governmental writ is tentative at best due to a variety of extra-constitutional power centres ranging from extremists to extortionists to feudal powers. This has continued as a blind spot for decades. Good Governance anchored on empathy and inclusiveness alone can strike at the root of these maladies.
The presence of good governance in public and private sectors is a key contributor to sustained economic growth and human development. Good governance happens when there is synergy and complementarity among the key stakeholders such as political leadership, civil servants, corporate sector, academia and professional practitioners. As in most other areas of development, here too Governments will do well to stick to the dictum, “minimum government, maximum governance”.