Grand Tamasha: ‘Many policies fail due to ambition, competence gap’

There is a paradox between the ambition and competence of the Indian state, and the gap between the two is why so many public policies fail, according to public policy scholar Pranay Kotasthane. Kotasthane made these comments on the premier episode of Season Nine of “Grand Tamasha” — a public policy podcast co-produced by the Hindustan Times and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kotasthane, who is the co-author of a new book, Missing In Action: Why You Should Care About Public Policy, was in conversation with Grand Tamasha host Milan Vaishnav, a Carnegie scholar.

“The mental image we have [of the Indian state] is lots of files and people wiling their time away behind these files, but the [fact] is that the Indian state is actually small on all important parameters. Whether it is sized by expenditure, employment, capability, we are small on all of these parameters,” Kotasthane explained. “What the state is big in is ambition. The state has this very vast ambition with very meagre resources. That often leads to us expecting the state to do great things” but unable to deliver.

Kotasthane’s new book, co-authored with Raghu S Jaitley, was published on January 23 by Penguin India and aims to provide an accessible introduction to the inner workings of the Indian state. As the authors put it, the book utilises sketches from everyday experiences to illustrate India’s tryst with public policymaking.

On the question of economic policy, Kotasthane expressed caution about the Modi government’s headlong push into Production-Linked Incentives (PLIs), the large subsidy scheme intended to incentivise foreign firms to make specialised manufactured goods in India. While Kotasthane refrained from issuing a final judgment on the wisdom of PLIs, he worried about the proliferation of incentives to firms. “Incentives are like band-aids over bullet wounds. A lot of the challenges of why business won’t come to India have to do with the tax, business, investment environment. PLIs can create a hospitable environment for a few years, but the question is what happens after that?”

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On the political front, Kotasthane argued that the conceptual confusion over the difference between a democracy and a republic plagues policymaking in India today. Whereas democracy is governed by the rule of men or women, a republic is governed by the rule of law.

As Kotasthane explained using an analogy, “No matter what, even if 99.99 percent agree that wearing a blue t-shirt is evil and should be punished, you cannot do that unless it is prescribed by law.”

As a republic, India has a special responsibility to ensure that all people in society are treated equally. “This is how the Indian republic prevents the majority from running roughshod over the minority—even if that minority is a single person,” said Kotasthane.

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