Reviewer and Critic
James Crabtree on India, Development Theories, and the Policy Formulation Process
On May 27 and 28, we welcomed James Crabtree, Singapore-based author, journalist and an Associate Professor of Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, at events in Zurich and Geneva. James worked for the Financial Times and between 2011 and 2016 he was the Mumbai bureau chief covering Indian business. Behind the scenes, we had the chance to talk to James about Indian stray cows, the role of giveaways in its election, and his experiences on both sides of the policy formulation process – reviewer and critic.
Anna Zwald: It is three days after the results of the 2019 election in India have been published. What are your feelings about this year’s election outcome?
James Crabtree: Almost everyone was caught a little bit by surprise by the strength of Narendra Modi’s performance. The conventional wisdom was that he would return but that he would do less well than in 2014. The fact that he did equally well and in some ways better was unforeseen. His appeal as a political leader, his charisma, and his message of national strength was one where neither the polls nor the analysts appreciated how powerful that continued to be.
You’ve been on the ground during the general election where you travelled through Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a journalist convoy. It’s the most populated state in India and therefore the most decisive to win votes. What were the most relevant and reoccurring topics for UP citizens?
Well, India’s economy hasn’t been performing as well as it should have for ordinary people, particularly with regards to employment. Hence, as we travelled around Uttar Pradesh, people did complain about the lack of jobs and economic opportunity. The implication was that people were not very happy with Modi. But actually, in retrospect, there were quite a lot of tangible things that the government has delivered to people. We travelled to many rural villages and there were always new toilets, farmers had received cash payments and people had new bank accounts. So, the government has managed to deliver just enough in terms of welfare hand-outs that people felt there has been taken care of them and as a result of that, they felt satisfied. What we heard quite a lot, particularly in towns, was that people liked Modi. They felt he represented a sort of new and stronger India. Hence, in the towns and in the cities, there was still a lot of enthusiasm for him and his party. That came across quite strongly.
What was the most surprising / unexpected experience you had with regard to the election?
Even though it did not have much bearing in the end, an issue that people talked about a lot was stray cows. In 2017, UP got a new chief minister, a firebrand cleric called Yogi Adityanath. For Hindus cows are holy. Hence, cows are not meant to be slaughtered and any cow slaughtering that goes on in these places tends to be done my Muslims. In office, he put up new restrictions on slaughter houses. In the beginning, devout Hindus were quite happy about these control measures, but the net result was that many cows were left to roam because they weren’t slaughtered anymore. Throughout the state, we found farmers complaining endlessly about the fact that the state was now beset by roaming stray cows trampling over their crops. We could sense real anger and many analysts interpreted the cow issue to have a damaging effect on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It didn’t turn out that way. But it does show you how delicate the balance between religious policy and economic development policy can be. The unintended consequences that rather intolerant policies can have on the livelihoods of people.
Elections in India are accompanied by giveaways of all sorts. The election commission even had to put out ads asking the public not to vote in exchange for cash, alcohol, drugs, gold and mobile top-ups. This sounds absurd to us. How do Indians feel about this political practice? How do they make use of it?
Vast amounts of money circulate around election time. This year, the election commission ceased 500 million dollars in illicit cash and other goods that were designed for bribes. That’s a very large figure in an election that is in general estimated to cost 7 billion dollars.
The conventional wisdom is: If you’re a smart voter then you accept whatever goodies are on offer and then you vote for whoever you like. There are so many inventive ways in which political parties provide benefits to people in India. However, as it is kind of accepted that bribes are part of the campaign, the problem facing political parties is that although they cannot guarantee that people will vote for them by handing out giveaways, they can all but guarantee that people won’t if they don’t. Behind lies the logic that when we expect to receive something but then we don’t get it, we are usually upset. For example, in one place, we arrived one day before the election and people were talking that money will be handed out later in the evening. Would this expectation then remain unfulfilled, voters are more likely to decide to give their vote to another party.
The issue of cash in the election is also a function of prosperity. The states in India which have the most bribery by value tend to be the Southern states because they are more economically prosperous. The bigger the pie is the more incentive any politician has to cease the pie. Hence, the size of these cash economies gets bigger. In the northern states, there is still plenty of bribery but the value of it is lower.
In your book you give a thorough picture of the political economy of India since the end of the «Licence Raj». Thereby you assess that the main issue laying behind the stagnant development of India is the lack of state capacity. Can you explain why state capacity is so important to guarantee successful development?
If you look at the literature on development, there are many different theories on why some countries are poor and some are not. The most convincing theories focus on what kind of government a country has. They ask questions such as: Is the state strong and capable? Are the institutions impartial? A good example is the book «Why Nations Fail» by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. One of the common themes of development is that it is very difficult to develop unless you have a reasonably functional state. Here, India has a lot of problems. India’s state is weak and uncoordinated. It is democratic but it is not very good at delivering things. It’s good in parts: good elite education institutions, good electoral commission, reasonably good central bank but it is very patchy. If a state wants to manage the complicated process of development in a way that avoids extensive corruption and cronyism and helps to develop particular industries the government needs to work properly. It needs to be well resourced and have the right people in it. India faces over 100 different challenges, from climate change to water policy, but behind all of them is lying the issue of state capacity. India needs a government that is at once more capable, in some ways more activist, for example in providing better education, in some ways less activist: Stop running state airlines and banks. Reshaping the state by deciding what it is for and what it is not for – that’s a critical task that almost precedes all others that it has to do.
Looking at the effort made to allow people to vote in India (1 million polling stations, 11 million people assisting, complying with rules such as no voter should be more than 2km away from a polling station) it seems democracy matters a great deal. Do people who vote for Modi understand that he is undermining democracy by attacking democratic institutions and some of the constitutional values India was founded on?
I wouldn’t quite put it like that. In a formal sense Modi is a democrat. He believes in elections and he is very good at winning elections. There is not really any sense that under him India’s electoral process is any less fair than it used to be. Modi can be criticised for many things, but I would not accuse him of being anti-democratic. He never lost an election. He’s one of the most successful democrats in the world. The problem with him is that he is not very liberal. So, it’s the bit in-between the election which is problematic. That’s when he and his party have undermined some of the institutional capabilities of the Indian state and some of the rights and freedoms in the constitution, particularly the ones enjoyed by minorities.
So, why do people vote for Modi? Some people argue that there is no great problem if India becomes more of a Hindu-society in the same way as for example Switzerland or England have some kind of Christian established church. Nevertheless, both countries are still able to protect the rights of minorities, despite having a sort of Christian heritage that is linked to the state. That is a legitimate point of view. It has some problems with it but if such a soft cultural form of majoritarianism that doesn’t harm the rights of minorities can be created then that’s one thing. Clearly, there are other people who voted for Modi who have a much more radical vision of a society change and that is what alarms both liberals and 1/5 of India’s population who is not Hindu.
You’ve been working as a journalist for several years and you still write for the Nikkei Asian Review. Prior, you’ve worked as a senior policy adviser in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. What was your incentive to switch kind of sides from the policy formulation process to the reviewer and critic of it and how much do the two professions differ from each other?
I’ve always moved back and forth between policy and writing. I worked in think tanks, I worked for the British government, I worked in journalism and now I’m in an academic institution. I find all sides of the policy process interesting. I spent more time as a journalist mainly because I am probably better at that. I have a short attention span and an eye for little details, both tends to help if you’re a journalist. Whereas, as a policy maker you have to become very good in moving your particular policy area a few inches further down towards a concrete goal.
Overall, I hope that each experience made me better at the other. If you are a journalist, it helps a great deal to spend some time inside a policy making bureaucracy. It deepens the understanding of how governments work, why they behave the way they do and what can be expected of politicians and civil servants. Equally, it is incredibly valuable to understand how the media works. It gives you a perspective of how things are perceived in public and this shapes the way the government operates. Having spent time in both worlds, I hope to have gained different perspectives which are useful in both areas.
Nationalism is on the rise all around the world. Also, in the UK where the Brexit turmoil is not coming to an end. As a UK citizen: What is your favoured outcome of the situation?
I was and remain a hardcore Remainer. I voted to remain in the referendum, and I think leaving the EU is a complete disaster. Those of us who thought that this process would be destructive and unhelpful have been proven entirely right. It is very hard to predict what is going to happen. So far, the process since the referendum has been divisive and it will get much more divisive from now on as we sit here in May. The options do seem to be hardening between the two extremes and the public debate is going to get worse rather than better. The space for a middle ground compromise seems to be declining. It certainly looks like we will have an even more extreme Prime Minister very soon. This is going to make it even more difficult to find a compromised outcome.
James Crabtree is a Singapore-based author and journalist, and an Associate Professor of Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His best-selling book, «The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age», was released in mid-2018. Prior to academia, James worked for the Financial Times, most recently leading coverage of Indian business as Mumbai bureau chief, between 2011 and 2016. He is now a columnist for Nikkei Asian Review, and also a non-resident fellow at the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House. Prior to journalism, James was a senior policy advisor in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He has worked for various think tanks in London and Washington DC, and spent a number of years living in America, initially as a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Read the Recap of our event with him in Zurich here and find the Recap of the event in Geneva here.
Anna Zwald is Project Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.
For all of our events we have the honor to welcome interesting and fascinating speakers. They are not just experts of a particular field, but often have access to corners of the world most of us don't. As part of our «Behind the Scenes» series we let them speak about their life stories and experiences.