agnipath: Three missing links in India’s reform push: Stakeholder connect, clear communication, aligned system


GoI, while initiating reforms, seems to be falling into a strange cyclical trap — from announcement, communication failure and blowback to crisis management within a matter of days. The root problem is reluctance among principal stakeholders and potential beneficiaries to take ownership and move the pieces forward.

As a result, the matter is eventually left for the bureaucracy to pick up, mitigate and ensure political insulation to the extent possible. While this may keep the ball in play, it raises doubts on longterm sustenance of reforms and, in some cases, like the farm laws, even mods the larger strategic objective of creating a whole new ecosystem better attuned with contemporary practices.

But if the current dispensation with its mandate is willing to show political will, then where’s the issue? For any deep structural reform to be successful, three things must align: stakeholder buy-in, communication strategy and the system that executes it. Unless that happens, vested interests keen on continuing the status quo will find ways and means to scuttle the impact.

Take the Agnipath initiative. Here, the principal stakeholder is the soldier, not the officer cadre. It was, thus, important that this scheme was explained and doubts clarified to serving jawans before its rollout. Because a jawan is the first point of call for military aspirants in India’s rural recruiting grounds. So, the site of discourse and discussion should not just have been the hallowed halls of South Block, but in units and battalions where officers and soldiers interface, where all the pre-announcement preparatory work ought to have been done in settings such as unit darbars , etc.

Identifying principal stakeholders and where a proper information-out becomes more important in today’s rich environment, where wrong interpretations and rumour interpretations can acquire salience. More often than not, the communication strategy is centerd around political prerequisites like ensuring due credit, etc, while other technical aspects are left for the system to cope with. Be it small farmers, medium and small businesses on GST issues, or potential military recruits, the communication model somehow fails to reach them. Worse, it ends up creating doubts and apprehensions, let alone failing to assure and convince.

Selection of the Fittest

The Agnipath initiative, for example, was sought to be explained in various ways. But it didn’t anticipate the backlash caused by the revelation that it would be the main entry route for jawans into the military. The fact is that what is being instituted is a four-year probation period following which the most suited would be selected.

Let’s enlarge this a bit further to the bigger problem of unemployment and the demand for government jobs in the current economic environment. The way forward is, perhaps, by altering the terms of engagement in government employment if that’s to remain a mainstay. Already, over the years, more people are being employed on contract. While that may reduce the allure of the permanent nature of government jobs, it may allow for more jobs to be created with greater frequency because the waiting period for a sarkari advertisement recruitment has only been growing.

The system, or the bureaucracy, which is the third part of the execution matrix, is currently the crisis manager-inchief. This time, we had the military bureaucracy feel the heat as it went about putting things in order. Here, GoI can take a leaf out of its success with social schemes.

The malaise of the Indian system is the inability to connect the last mile. One of Narendra Modi’s key achievements is that on the welfare side, he has, through deployment of digital technology and direct bank transfer (DBT) tools, been able to close that gap to the extent that it’s reaping the BJP rich political dividends. A similar approach is needed for planning and implementation of structural reforms that affect a larger mass of people.

The preparatory phase of any reform initiative is important. Identification of stakeholders, reaching out to them and including their feedback is a process that can only be tested against the stakeholder response to a subsequent rollout. Just like it’s not enough to allocate funds to a welfare program and let the system do the rest, top-down policy rollouts without proper bottom-up preparation can prove counterproductive when it comes to structural reforms.

Importantly, these are quite different from the economic reforms of the 1990s, perhaps way more challenging and arduous a task. Stakeholders in the economic space are usually more organised, making it easier to hold structured consultations.

Touch to Connect

In structural reforms, political credibility and acceptance is almost always a prerequisite. Which is why the Modi government is best placed to initiate, shape and implement them because any such reform will meet resistance. But sound preparatory work among stakeholders and a clear strategy communication alongside a properly aligned system would be able to steer the discourse than just react to crisis.

Having said so, it’s crucial to bear in mind that this is a bit of unchartered territory as far as governance is concerned. There will be setbacks, protests and blowbacks. The problem from a reform perspective, however, starts when the fallout starts to negatively impact the rollout, like it happened with the farm laws. Which is where investing in building credible reform stakeholders, who take ownership of the policy and adopt it as their own, may hold the key.

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