In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the number of think tanks and academic institutions studying public policy in India. These range from government-funded bodies (like NITI Aayog), private sector organisations (like Observer Research Foundation or Centre for Policy Research) to international forums (like World Economic Forum, World Bank) and policy schools in premier higher education institutions (Centre for Policy Studies at IIT Bombay, School of Public Policy at IIT Delhi).
These indicate a divergence from the previous dominance of the Civil Service, mainly through the Planning Commission, in policy recommendation and analysis. While implementation was seen as the key determinant of policy success or failure till the 1990s, this has given way to analysis of policy design, assumptions, forecasts and the very objective of the policy. This has also resulted in both a politicisation of policy and the ‘policy-fication’ of politics.
In spite of the inchoate nature of the process, policy debates still provide the core of ideas, justifications and concepts – although more contentiously in a political environment where achievement of power through ideological hegemony seems to be the predominant goal. This article discusses the direction of policy studies and its changing relevance in the current political context.
While Planning Commission in India signified policy as a technocratic tool of an enlightened administration, recent developments have taken an argumentative turn locating policy both as a strategy servicing politicians and interest groups (politicisation of policy) and as a tool to structure and systematise the public debate between experts, citizens and states (‘policy-fication’ of politics). The Commission, in its latter decades, was criticised for its lack of political realism and introducing political preferences under the guise of neutral procedures and technicalities in pursuit of political objectives.
Although similar critiques can be made of Niti Aayog, today’s broader policy debate recognises human biases, political motivations and power dynamics much more than it did in the past. Diverse and emerging institutions of policy studies also reflect reduced relevance of traditional political scientists in the power hierarchy of the policy process. This is signified by the shift to a more technocratic approach that studies impact, processes and content of public policy based on causation, falsification and evidence. This seems to be a more casual approach that diagnoses problems, conducts trials/experiments and predicts impacts of policy interventions. To what end, is an open question. They may be just as political in the guise of neutral.
Moreover, there is an added appreciation of action imperatives and political demands that policymakers face, although sometimes it may be used to justify very bad but enthusiastic policies. Policy studies today lie at the intersection of scientific rationality as a means of solving collective problems and the socio-cultural fragmentation that regard rationality as exclusionary, undemocratic and incompatible with diversity, and hence fallible. To ameliorate this, policy reports try to underline improvements and modification as important components of policy, thus locating it in an iterative social context of public understanding, dialogue and action.
At the same time, opening up of the policy process has also lead to multiple cosy relationships among politicians, administrators, analysts and commentators who have coherent views on an issue. This generates pockets of influence with divergent political framing systems, whose relevance changes with power dynamics. In fact, this is a clear example of politicisation of policy where any evidence is no more than an argument to further an outcome.
In this context, policy studies may be seen just as a systematic means to provide clever strategic shortcuts and simplifications to decision-makers, with only modest changes in their knowledge, i.e. policy analysts are seen as just providing ammunition in a rhetorical contest whose policy outcome has been decided by those in power. Optimistically, this can also be viewed as a way to forge common ground between competing interests. However, this may also create a moral relativism where reprehensible policies suddenly emerge as solutions from the supposed consensus of participatory or electoral politics. It disregards the conditions for such a political consensus if it can be so-called, resulting in political deception and manipulated legitimisation of forced consent.
One of the issues with this argumentative turn in policy studies is the creation of counter-experts immune to learning or reflection – ‘tribes of experts’ – who create ‘contradictory certainties’ beyond comparison for politically persuasive audiences, which reinforces polarisation and leads to policy paralysis. Policy studies today is caught between the practical demands of scientific analysis and the increasingly tenuous practice of politics. It is in a dilemma between serving either an active participatory, national citizenship or a self-proclaimed, enlightened, policy-making political elite (includes opposition) which is global.
This predicament also signifies a gradual decoupling of policy studies from its previous role in supporting government-initiatives, towards shaping the debate on issues that have either skipped decision-makers or which require more global agreements to emerge before a policy problem is even defined. While policy studies is an emerging field in Indian academia, it would be wise for its promoters and practitioners to recognise the direction they are treading on and reflect on the way forward. The fractured nature of modern politics can easily seep into policy studies, undermining the expertise of policy analysts and degrading the quality of policy-making.