Nearly eight years ago, in an insightful article called ‘Some Dismal Signals’, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta asked if India was increasingly ‘ungovernable’. He traced the ‘ungovernability’ of India to three reasons.
One, the private sector was increasingly resistant to the State’s wherewithal to manoeuvre it. Two, there was a dissonance between the language of policy makers and its intended effect. Three, conglomerates with an option to exit the country often held government’s policy captive. Since then, India has gone through extraordinary changes which have only exacerbated the originally diagnosed symptoms. What has stayed constant is how we think about Indian society, and the institutions within it.
Our experts often speak all-knowingly that Indian society is an assemblage of coalitions. People form coalitions, and coalitions engage in a bargaining game to extract rent. The policy prescription in this framework is often a three-step move — identify incentives correctly, reduce rent-seeking, and demonstrate consistency. Implicit in this paradigm of Indian society is the assumption that its institutions are homogenous with similar abilities to withstand and react to policy or socio-economic shocks. Every budget speech or rhetoric about economic growth reflects this almost evangelistic belief that policy prescriptions are similarly experienced across society.
These theoretical models of Indian society, often touted by the policy-entrepreneur-think tank class, often fold at the first contact with reality. What we need instead is a conceptual model of India that is less ‘platonic’, less interested in accurate models, and more informed by experience, heuristics, and some epistemological humility, about what we can’t know. Nassim Taleb, a scholar of probability theory and ex-derivatives trader, makes a case that in much of life and government policy, instead of optimising we must ask if a particular action is making us more fragile, robust, or anti-fragile. Do the fundamentals of an institution strengthen, remain unaffected, or break down when subject to a socio-economic change or shock?
Made to stand
Fragile institutions or processes are those that easily break down when subject to instability, volatility, or chaos. Examples of this are debt-ridden banks, state-imposed secularism, civic infrastructure that plan for ‘normal’ monsoons, nuclear reactors etc. Such systems are often made ‘efficient’ by experts who argue to reduce redundancy and streamline information. But the day-to-day functioning of these institutions can just as easily be reversed or disrupted by large-scale social unrest or policy deviations from the mean.
Robust institutions, in contrast, are those that can withstand social or policy shocks. Till recently, ‘traditional’ marriages were robust to external shocks because of social norms or communal pressures. So were village economies, the Sanskrit language, and the traditional diet regimen. For centuries they existed on their own, evolved in their own incremental fashion, were rarely affected by shocks, and thus rarely broke down.
But it is the ‘anti-fragile’ institutions of India that pose difficulties to understand and manage. These are systems and institutions that become stronger as social turmoil rises. In India, the greatest anti-fragile institution is the caste system. Others include sectarian identities, language chauvinism and criminal syndicates.
Once we begin to think of India as a collage of these three systems, the problems of ungovernability are suddenly recast in a different light. Each of these institutions have their votaries and interest groups. As India becomes more urban, our governments effectively become managers, and often creators, of fragility. Viewed thus, one policy decision can affect institutions belonging to each of these systems differently.
Of the three, it is ‘fragile’ institutions that our media and political narrative are most engaged with. The ‘ungovernability’ of India is thus intimately tied to our collective economic discourse that solely thinks about fragile institutions rather than other typologies. We think stock market instead of wealth, we blather on about state-mandated secularism instead of thinking about traditions of coexistence, we obsess over economic growth instead of economic security.
One consequence of this reframing is that when our experts opine that agricultural income will be doubled by pushing the agricultural population into industry — the real question is whose lives will be made fragile. What are the social reactions? There are no easy answers to these questions of governance except to think of our problems as tradeoffs and compromises rather than as solutions. This paradigm that reframes policy in terms of fragility, robustness and anti-fragility helps us to see through arguments of economic efficiency and growth, to ask harder, more critical questions.
The author is a writer and lives in New York City.