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October 1, 2010

The perils of the policy intellectual

The lifeblood of a vibrant democracy is debate. Debate conducted not just in the halls of parliament or at street-corner teashops, but in newspaper columns and public forums. The policy intellectual—whether in a think tank, academia or the media—has an indispensable role to play in these venues as the compass of public opinion for policymakers and as the trigger for public debate. The policy intellectual questions policy, but also explains policy, and in doing so identifies with the oddest combination —-responsibility without power.

Yet, the Indian policy intellectual is in a state of crisis today. The biggest challenge is to survive without being “labelled”. How can he be honest in his opinion without being smeared with an ideological label? How can she prod the government into shedding the lethargy and laxity that allowed the Mumbai attacks or Headley’s post-Mumbai visits to happen, without being labeled a “right-winger”? How could he have voiced his dissent with the mishandling of protests in Kashmir without being labeled a bleeding heart liberal? How can the Indian intellectual advocate for justice to victims of Gujarat riots without being cast onto the human rights wagon? Or condemn the excesses of the Popular Front of India (PFI) in Kerala without being termed un-secular? How can the intellectual call for distribution of mineral mining royalties extracted from forest lands directly to tribals and still not hesitate from unequivocally condemning Maoist attacks without being put in one compartment or another? Can the Indian policy intellectual today call for peace with Pakistan and still hope to be called a patriot? Can she call for improving delivery systems for the nuclear arsenal and not risk being labelled a hawk? Can he believe in the greatness of India’s civilisational legacy without being called a nationalist? Can she talk about the empowerment heralded by India’s economic rise without being termed bourgeois? This is the nature of the policy intellectual’s dilemma. These policy choices are not mutually conflicting and either-or, and yet he is unable to escape the Manichean stereotypes that burden policy debate in India today. The unwanted medal of partisanship is always waiting in the wings to hang like an albatross around his neck. And it’s often just one op-ed away.

The very word “intellectual” carries such an ideological baggage that the most idealistic of intellectuals bend under its weight. And what is worse, should the intellectual leave his proverbial armchair and get his hands dirty in fighting for a specific cause, he’s instantly labeled an “activist”—yet another loaded word.

The second challenge for the intellectual is to get policymakers to talk. Bureaucracies across the world are wary of dispensing information. In a democracy like ours, civil servants worry about paying the price for political leaders’ intrigues and often, justifiably so. But the consequence is that information is a sacred commodity in India. Virtually any piece of data collected by the government can be deemed to be a matter of national security and be classified under the Official Secrets Act. The Right to Information Act was thus a step in the right direction. However, the policy intellectual is neither trying to embarrass the government nor trying to be a investigative journalist. The objective is to counsel the government, not to confront it. But in a country where there is no system of security clearances governing access to data, and where almost no citizen outside government has any access to official records, policy research becomes a Herculean task.

The third challenge of the intellectual is to get policymakers to listen. For a large section of policymakers, the intellectual is not a person with policy planning expertise; she is a person without policy administration experience. This means that the best of ideas are never read and if read, rarely implemented merely because of the identity of the person giving the ideas as someone from outside the policymakers’ circle. Take for instance, any of the excellent expert panel reports commissioned by various ministries. One finds it surprising that recommendations in these reports rarely translate into policy. What then is the purpose of even creating these panels with distinguished academics and subject experts? Hopeful of contributing to the grand project of national transformation, the academic or civil society intellectual brainstorms, surveys and comes up with benchmarks and recommendations. And then her recommendations are deemed not feasible or worse, impractical, by the very officials who commissioned her for the assignment.

Finally, it is another challenge for the intellectual is to make a living and still not be tainted by where the funds come from. Given the above challenges, only a brave few dare to become career policy intellectuals. Once they do, they realise that both the social ladder as well as income growth become steep. Those that persist get asked way too often as to where they are getting their money from. As Sanjaya Baru, editor of Business Standard, recently pointed out, given the paucity of government and corporate patronage, Indian think tanks are increasingly being forced to seek grants from foreign trusts. While this taints them by association, in reality, they have not been known to compromise their integrity and India-first approach. But try explaining this to a policymaker. And so the Indian policy intellectual lives in limbo, unwilling to pawn his intellect, and unable to contribute it to policymaking.

What can be done? To start with, policymakers, right from the time they start their career—political or bureaucratic—must have regular interaction with policy intellectuals (and not just those who work with a political party). The intellectuals too should reach out to young policymakers rather than just those at the very top of the hierarchy. Recruitment regulations should be changed to facilitate entry of policy intellectuals into the civil service, and deputation rules should encourage mid-career civil servants to serve in policy research institutions outside government.

Labelling is not an easy trap to escape, but responsible reporting in the media can make a difference.

The policy intellectual himself can solve some of these dilemmas. Bipartisanship is difficult and often a lie. But non-partisanship is not. Non-partisanship does not mean not taking a stance on a political issue. It means cultivating a stance after careful analysis of each given issue. It means not becoming a prisoner of one’s own past ideas even as the context of policy changes. It means having an issue-specific preference rather than a generic preference towards a class of issues. The former is Bias (which is normal and unavoidable) but the latter amounts to Prejudice. For the policy intellectual, no political ideology should trump the national interest.

The policy intellectual has an important stake in India’s policymaking. It is a stake derived not from political or constitutional power, but from his or her commitment towards the nation and should therefore, be recognised, accepted and utilised. To keep the democracy vibrant, policy arguments should be judged by their substance than by their source.


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