Is Modi’s Technocracy India’s Future?

Open | January 13, 2017

As the crisis of democracy deepens, the question assumes significance.

Indian elites can surely recall the 1990s and 2000s when the country’s international brand rested on the twin pillars of being ‘the world’s largest democracy’ and the ‘India Shining’ campaign. The former was animated by post-Cold War American triumphalism and the Clinton administration’s efforts to assemble a ‘Community of Democracies’ with India as a crucial anchor. The latter simply equated India’s long overdue economic liberalisation with the promise of a billion consumers.

But back then, neither the marketplace of ideas nor the economic marketplace took the bait. India was big, but not yet important. Even membership in the so-called ‘BRICS’ club failed to garner India any specific foreign policy objectives such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The difference today, of course, is that India has broken decisively from dynastic democracy and is moving as quickly as one could expect towards effective technocracy. Technocracy is a system of government that combines democracy and data, where public consultation (through elections, surveys, social media analysis, and other means) feeds expert decision-making by leaders who are meritocratically selected and utilitarian in mindset. Simply put: Technocracy marries good ideas with efficient execution.

Just as there is no perfect democracy in the world, there is no perfect technocracy either. But the more complex our societies become individually and collectively, the more we will find that technocratic governance will better serve the national and global interest.

The End of (American) History

What better evidence could there be that the notion of ‘democracy’ should not be blindly bandied about as the unqualified solution to the challenges of national evolution than the country that has done the most in the past half-century to propagate it, America?

The election of Donald J Trump, a many times failed businessman and self-promoting reality TV star, as President of the world’s most powerful country has proved to the world that America is just winging it. Rather than steadily improving governance over time, the country is caught in a hapless cycle of flip-flopping parties and policies while overall national welfare stagnates. Populism has prevailed over pragmatism.

Nearly two centuries after Alexis de Tocqueville’s ode Democracy in America, Americans themselves appear on the cusp of the realisation that they need less of their own version of democracy—much less. As they witness their position in the global rankings of wealth, life expectancy, education, public safety and other metrics slide below that of their first world peers, their sentiments towards their government have rapidly changed. A 2014 Gallup survey found that Americans are not only fed up with the performance of the federal government, but also that they have lost faith in their system of government, with dissatisfaction doubling to 65 per cent. The flaw is both in delivery and design. Democracy alone just isn’t good enough anymore.

More broadly, the most recent World Values Survey reveals that from World War II to today, the percentage of people in Europe and the US who feel it is ‘essential to live in a democracy’ has fallen from two-thirds to under one-third. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who believe that experts should decide what is best for the country rather than the government has risen from 32 per cent to 49 per cent. In other words: Americans are craving a better government—one that balances democracy and technocracy.

America today, however, far better represents degenerative politics than good governance. Many American intellectuals celebrate the theatre of politics as if it is the embodiment of Tocqueville’s praise for civic democracy. But democracy is not an end in itself. The greater goal is effective governance and improved national well-being. Because Americans no longer sense collective progress, they don’t trust their institutions anymore, whether the White House, Congress, political parties, the Supreme Court, big business, or church. These organs of American leadership are passing down to the next generation a less well functioning government and society rather than the one they need to manage a complex future.

In his recent book Political Order and Political Decay, scholar Francis Fukuyama wonders whether the American system requires some kind of external ‘shock to the political order’—such as a war or revolution—to jolt itself out of the present downward spiral and return to a focus on performance rather than politics. To his supporters, Trump represents precisely this kind of (positive) shock to the old order. But in fact Trump represents merely a changing of the guard, not a changing of the system. His cabinet is stacked with white billionaires bent on repealing regulation and welfare across the board in the false hope that generating growth will mitigate the country’s appalling inequality. Even with the White House, Congress and Supreme Court controlled by the Republican Party, there is no evidence that his administration will point the American supertanker in the direction of progress rather than into an abyss.

A technocratic America would look very different—in the literal sense of having a very different organisational design. As I explain in my new book Technocracy in America, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of technocratic states operate in committee-based structures focused on proactive implementation of deeply researched policy initiatives. Unfortunately, America today suffers from an abundance of representation and a deficit of administration. There is a great excess in the power of representatives—congressmen and senators—and deep shortfall in the power of administrators—governors and mayors. There are too many officials trained in law and not enough in policy. In other words, too much time spent arguing rather than doing something.

American democracy could be made far more effective through the technocratic toolkit being deployed around the world in better-run countries from Switzerland and Germany to Singapore and China. There are three things that the best governments do well: Respond efficiently to citizens’ needs and preferences, learn from international experience in devising policies, and use data and scenarios for long-term planning. If done right, such governments marry the virtues of direct democracy with the effectiveness of managed technocracy—a model I call ‘direct technocracy’. Now that the US has unilaterally abdicated its position as the most competent and capable government, the race is on to construct this ideal regime for the future.

India’s Elected Technocracy

With American democracy declining as a role model and Indian democracy leaving much to be desired, the rise of an elected technocrat such as Narendra Modi comes not a moment too soon for India’s masses. Leaders with provincial experience confronting local needs and testing ideas almost always wind up as better national leaders than those who have merely represented constituencies but never actually governed them. All of the newfound confidence and credibility India has gained in recent years owes itself to this technocratic shift.

It is well-known that Prime Minister Modi is a long-time admirer of first-world Singapore and superpower China, Asia’s two archetypal technocratic states. As Prime Minister, Modi saw how little weight being a poor and disconnected democracy carries in geopolitics, which is primarily concerned with coherent power projection, and understood that India’s democratic chaos, while charming for tourists, holds little appeal to foreign investors. For India to truly graduate from Asian laggard to a global leader, it has to continue to advance down the technocratic path.

As it seeks to absorb lessons from the East, India is finally breaking from comparisons with its third world South Asian neighbours. Asia’s major democracies—India, Indonesia and the Philippines—whose combined population is nearly 1.7 billion, are all in the process of getting their act together in the hopes of emulating the region’s better run technocracies. This means not just Singapore but even Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Malaysia is mired in corruption but is a stable, modern multi- ethnic state with first-world infrastructure and rising prosperity. Vietnam is a single-party regime yet has massively modernised the country and reduced poverty, with foreign investment pours in employing its hard-working and skilled population. Thailand’s 2014 coup ousted incompetent democratic leaders in favour of a military junta, and Thais backed a permanent political role for the military in a constitutional referendum in 2016. These aren’t ideal regimes, but they are an order of magnitude superior in their postcolonial performance than what India has delivered.

It is precisely because India, Indonesia and the Philippines have each endured decades of forgettable or regrettable governments that they have all in recent years elected leaders with explicitly technocratic pretensions. Indians, Indonesians and Filipinos are no longer content to be part of vibrant commercial societies but with dysfunctional governments. Fed up with patronising clichés about how they thrive despite their political systems, they have voted in governments with no-nonsense agendas focused on infrastructure, jobs, education and technology. Success need not be an accident.

In Asia, technocracy has become a form of political salvation. Democracy eventually gets sick of itself and votes for technocracy. Think about it: These three countries have had functional democracy for at least a generation, but only now is the world paying attention to their progress in cutting red tape, establishing special economic zones, and investing in social welfare. Because Asian societies are modernising and increasingly liberal, they will evolve towards better governance that balances political openness with goal-oriented technocracy.

In Western thought, a deep complacency has set in that confuses politics with governance, democracy with delivery, process with outcomes. But the ‘will of the people’ is not just to repeat their desires over and over without results. China’s spectacular rise versus that of democracies such as India has shown the world that it is better to have a system focused on delivery without democracy than a system that is too democratic at the expense of delivery. For democracy to be admired, it has to deliver. Elections are an instrument of accountability, not a mode of delivery. The input legitimacy of democracy can never compensate for the output legitimacy of delivering the basics.

Good technocracies are equally focused on inputs and outputs. Their legitimacy comes both from the process by which the government is selected and the delivery of what citizens universally proclaim they want: Solid infrastructure, public safety, clean air and water, reliable transportation, ease of doing business, good schools, quality housing, dependable childcare, freedom of expression, access to jobs, and so on. The technocratic mindset is that delay in getting these things done is itself a form of corruption. Instead of perpetual blame games and acceptance of stasis as the norm, good technocracies are always out to solve their problems.

Let’s take away from all of this not that democracy is undesirable, for it is not only a crucial foundation of legitimacy, but also a vital pillar of successful technocracy. Instead, democracy has to be seen not as a universal solution but a principle to be observed in the quest towards the higher objective of good governance. The elements of good governance—accountable leadership, national stability, political inclusion, effective service delivery, regulatory quality, transparent rule of law, low corruption, impartial judiciary, civil liberties, protection of rights, provision of economic opportunity and other variables—are touted by all modern societies. What matters is execution as measured by the process for determining laws, the autonomy of the bureaucracy, and the effectiveness of policy delivery, among other metrics.

Once we stop preaching democracy and instead ask what is the essential course for governments to get their act together and stop inflicting unnecessary suffering on their people, we can move from style to substance. In the long run, the quality of governance matters more than regime type. After all, the average person in ‘communist’ China leads a far better life in almost every possible dimension than the average person in ‘democratic’ India. Chinese citizens not surprisingly also trust their government far more than their Indian counterparts. As one Chinese scholar has said, “Chinese people don’t love their government, but they trust it.”

What India’s new technocrats realise is that, unlike China, India went through political devolution prior to building national unity, meaning it remains much less than the sum of its parts. Successive governments have perennially made pay-outs to the provinces to purchase loyalty, which only encouraged further fragmentation. At independence, India had only 14 provinces; today it has 29. Modi is not out to reverse democracy but to compensate for this debilitating sequence of devolution before modernisation. India is a shining example of the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s famous dictum that what matters more than the type of government is the degree of government. Modi’s mantra channels this insight: ‘Minimum government, maximum governance.’

Getting Technocracy Right

It must be stated very clearly that numerous important technocratic measures predate Prime Minister Modi’s ascent. For example, it was under the UPA Government that the revolutionary Aadhaar digital ID scheme began, as well as the process of amending the Constitution to initiate a GST system. The previous Government also appointed Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor who undertook serious bank reform and fought inflation, and made progress on the India-Bangladesh land-swap deal. On some matters, therefore, Modi has been pushing matters across the goal line rather than initiating interventions.

And that too is part of smart technocracy: Continuity. Or, in Modi’s words, “De-linking issues and decisions from elections.” National infrastructure in roads, railways and power, to which Modi has pledged nearly $200 billion in long-term funding, are existential priorities, as are GST and FDI reforms and the #MakeInIndia campaign to create high-quality jobs in growth sectors. Successful states are ones where there is continuity across administrations in matters of national interest. To take another example, while the BJP government’s support for the Aadhaar program hasn’t been consistent, the payment app feature is now being rolled out.

In any multi-party parliamentary democracy, particularly a poor country with fragmented and feudal provincial politics, some degree of horse-trading and handouts cannot be eradicated from the system overnight. That is why embedding technocratic practice in federal institutions should be a top priority. Here the Modi agenda is at a very early stage, with plenty of room for improvement.

Demonetisation, for example, is a brilliant leapfrog that will certainly benefit the population as a whole, but it need not have been done so hastily without first enrolling hundreds of millions more citizens in digital banking to alleviate significant inconveniences. The effort has not backfired, but easily avoidable oversights have opened up the government to accusations that the whole programme was rushed to influence the upcoming Uttar Pradesh election. In a good technocracy, each stage of the execution process is considered and planned for in advance.

Modi has also been accused of overly personalising diplomacy. While Modi has no doubt been good for India’s image, even a cursory glance at US president Obama’s eight years in office offer a powerful reminder that soaring speeches, selfies and bear-hugs carry foreign policy only so far. True technocracies empower functional agencies rather than overshadowing them. This way they are deeply involved in major decisions such as defence acquisition programmes and commercial tie-ups. This is the hand-in-glove approach that characterises Germany, Brazil and other leading countries with smart economic diplomacy.

Another issue India might be surprised to find lessons from abroad on is Kashmir. Countries such as Indonesia and Colombia have made major strides in recent years towards resolving decades old civil wars (Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) by using a mix of political autonomy, infrastructure development, peace-building measures and military stabilisation operations. The BJP Government has much to learn if it hopes to resolve India’s longest-standing domestic wound.

Technocratic thinking also leads to better long-term foreign policy rather than reactive and emotive lurches. With respect to Pakistan, the persistent reality of cross-border altercations in and beyond Kashmir should not immediately lead to a cessation of progress towards most-favoured nation trade status and taking advantage of opportunities such as the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. Technocratic diplomacy never holds bilateral relations hostage to a single issue.

There is no end to the range of issues on which a technocratic government proactively seeks to gather knowledge from domestic experiments and overseas case studies: tax relief for start-ups, guaranteed minimum wage, right to work, public-private infrastructure finance, skill-building programmes, and much else at the top of India’s immediate and long-term agendas.

That is why the most important institution in a technocratic society is not the office of the prime minister but the civil service. While historically an elite institution, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) has much to learn from Singapore and China, whose CSC and CELAP respectively have become epicentres for bridging data and governance. Meanwhile, the IAS has become more politicised while facing difficulties in talent recruitment and promotion.

To achieve better national governance, there is no question that the IAS needs to be a more robust presence, with a larger number of specialists (including local knowledge) and genuine independence from political interference. The establishment of the Parliamentary Research Service (PRS) in 2005 and conversion of the Planning Commission in 2014 into the NITI Aayog think- tank are examples of how hybrid public-private-civic expertise can work at the federal and state level to determine the best policies, while also tracking progress and ensuring accountability.

Technocracy as Innovation State

As India seeks to become a global innovation power—a more creative China—government, cooperation with the private sector will be paramount. The best technocratic states make physical and economic master plans hand-in-hand such that infrastructure is adaptable for multiple uses. They align the central government, companies, and educational institutions to direct their collective energy towards building industries relevant to global supply chains. Silicon Valley, contrary to the lore of the accidental confluence of weather and venture capital, has had strategic direction at every turn. Stanford University aspired to serve the industries of the emerging west coast since the 1890s, and after World War II provided space for companies such as Varian Associates that made military radar equipment. In the 1950s it incubated the Valley’s early semiconductor firms and computing giants such as Hewlett- Packard, while receiving financial support from Xerox PARC. By the late 1960s it became one of four nodes for the Defense Department’s ARPANET. Many of America’s pioneering innovations from nuclear power to the Internet to GPS have their origins in US government programmes. If governments didn’t support entrepreneurial innovation, San Jose would not sit atop the world’s value chain today.

In recent decades, Japan and South Korea have successfully built large innovation clusters both through strategic planning and healthy domestic competition. Dutch technology pioneer Philips in Eindhoven, Netherlands, owns over 130,000 patents, while Korean conglomerate Samsung in Seoul, has almost 500,000 employees and posted 2014 revenues of $300 billion. There is no debate about whether government has a role in innovation but rather which roles at what stage.

No country today better keeps the key industries and companies, labour markets and the educational establishment in sync better than Switzerland, maintaining near full employment and a highly skilled and productive workforce trained for lucrative industries. On the surface, Switzerland’s approach to economic master planning is not to have one. But in fact it is rather that everyone in Switzerland has a strategy because of the country’s openness to ideas, entrepreneurial spirit and technically focused education. Watches and knives, pharmaceuticals and chocolate, precision tools and encrypted hardware—almost everything Switzerland makes is better than anything anyone else can offer. This is because rather than shun vocational education, Swiss overwhelmingly prefer apprenticeships as a mode of skill-building for the global marketplace. As of 2016, Swiss firms were even setting up vocational apprenticeships in the US in order to help the American population ‘up-skill’ and become a more attractive investment destination. These deep historical and cultural foundations have made Switzerland the leading winner of Nobel prizes per capita.

Such conditions are not easy to replicate, but Singapore is trying to emulate Switzerland by promoting polytechnic education as a first-tier rather than second-tier option, and by creating ‘learning passports’ that record educational and training experiences across the full spectrum of institutions, including online courses. It has partnered with regional industry associations to train Singaporeans in the next generation of professions such as data- driven logistics and infrastructure finance, and matched each of its vocational schools with a counterpart from Switzerland and Germany to acquire the best curricula across a range of fields. The top three most competitive economies in the world according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) are Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore, all of which have vocational educational systems and worker retraining programs and near-zero unemployment.

America’s unemployment benefits alone don’t retrain workers for new jobs the way such vocational systems do. Meanwhile, European countries such as Denmark guarantee training positions for workers who have been unemployed for as little as four months. Danish workers laid off from closed shipyards have quickly transitioned into jobs with Vestas, the wind power giant. Furthermore, America’s excessive shareholder capitalism has meant that its companies discount the costs of R&D and worker training to pad quarterly growth, while European companies make far higher investments in up-skilling, the result of corporate governance structures in which labour has seats on management boards. The price is slightly lower growth, but more egalitarian societies.

Countries without America’s geographic size, depth of capital markets, generations of industrial innovation and scale of talent— which is every other country in the world—cannot afford to arbitrarily experiment with their industrial foundations until they get lucky. Instead, they have to determine their strategic niche and practice the seemingly paradoxical ‘managed innovation’ the way Singapore does, targeting specific sectors (either low or high value) for which they can marry foreign capital and talent with local labour and logistics to build competitive advantage.

All of this is to show just how sophisticated a society must become to be a world leader, something no democracy can achieve without strategic technocratic thinking. And yet no country at India’s level of human development has so much potential in its agriculture and industry, human capital and technology, in its cities such as Mumbai and Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai. But India won’t get far unless New Delhi becomes a place that systematically and aggressively backs these opportunities in a hyper-competitive global landscape.

The combination of Brexit and Trump has made 2016 the year when the hegemony of Western political thought finally crumbled. Every country is now in the same race, not to emulate America but to deliver security and welfare to its population by whatever means necessary. In this new competition, rigorous technocratic approaches will prove superior to haphazard democratic cycles. Winners and losers in the 21st century will be determined not by hewing to a Western political arc but through rigorous technocratic learning and adaptation.

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