Jaideep A Prabhu
Vacancy Upstairs?
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

High office teaches decision-making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.

Henry Kissinger’s famous observation about the circle of power unnerves most people – how can politicians respond to an ever-changing world if they are incapable of innovative thinking to address increasingly difficult international crises? After all, as Kissinger also remarked of the international system, “each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem.”

Upon closer examination, Kissinger’s point well-taken. Running a country is no easy task, and the sheer volume of files one has to read, speeches one has to give, and meetings one has to attend would leave little time for pontificating on abstruse philosophies of statehood and government or the Aristotelian influences on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Yet one cannot hope that all aspirants to high office will have advanced degrees in the humanities or sciences, nor is this necessarily desirable. Politicians have attempted to address this gap in two ways – the first is a staff that is competent in putting relevant ideas in front of a minister in an abridged format, and the second is relying upon the research done by think tanks and in universities. To facilitate this, advanced democracies ensure access to well-maintained archives of national records, periodic declassification, and access to government officials by researchers and journalists.

If it has not already, this should ring alarm bells for Indians. Not only does the country lack in erudite statesmen, but it also has no concept of an open society. The National Archives in India are a poor shadow of their sister institutions in Europe and the United States, holding a collection that is of only passing interest to scholars of diplomacy. Furthermore, India’s perverse social hierarchy restricts access to officials, few of whom are willing to or capable of divulging the practices of power in India. As a result, think tanks in India produce little of interest on New Delhi’s policies, let alone serve as a source for analysis of the policies of foreign governments.

Due to poor funding and frustrating regulations in India’s educations sector, there is not a single Indian university that stands out for an exceptional humanities programme. The average Indian’s aversion to the humanities has also hurt recruitment to the arts, but with poor faculty, atrocious library collections, a pervasive Marxist bias, and non-existent little opportunity in government or business, there is little to motivate young students to opt for the humanities over professional schools which will in all likelihood result in better-paying jobs.

India lacks not only a talent pool of young and budding humanities scholars but also the mindset to develop such a workforce. Recent articles that have suggested that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) hire laterally to make up for the acute shortage of manpower they face sound like a major reform in the ossified bureaucracy of the Indian civil service. Indeed it is, but it is a little like buying a saddle for an imaginary horse – there are precious few scholars of policy being churned out in India and there is nothing to attract Indians in premier graduate programmes in the UK, US, and elsewhere to the IFS. Given the bleak scenario, it is not sure where the IFS is supposed to recruit laterally from, or if new lateral hires, probably not of the quality desired, would actually improve the functioning of the IFS or add to the already bloated state apparatus.

Another nugget of wisdom from Kissinger’s playbook suggests, “No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.” Without several think tanks, academic programmes, scholarly journals, and a transparent government, it is impossible to have a vibrant public sphere. This means that the Indian public is always left in the dark, limiting discussion to a handful of policy elites. To paraphrase from US political commentator James Carville, India’s newspaper headlines tell us everyday how the country is going to hell, and the editorial page sings paeans of failing government policies or dismisses every idea suggested to fix affairs; there is certainly little by way of interrogating government propaganda. This suits New Delhi very well, accustomed to working without outside scrutiny and little accountability. There is no need to re-state, however, how well that has worked for India.

Finally, there is the matter of the end user – the people. Too busy dealing with hostile tax regimes under welfarist governments, burdened poor educational, health, and transport infrastructure, pollution, corruption, and the failure of the police and judiciary, citizens find it difficult to inform themselves and question their political masters. Yet many find time to protest, or at least pontificate, on violence in Burma or the supposed insult to one of the many available icons of Indian society while showing no dissatisfaction over power cuts lasting for up to 12 hours in their cities. As Carter Eskew wrote, “The lack of innovation in politics and government is not just a supply problem; it’s a demand problem. We routinely settle for too little.”

All this is to reiterate that management of the country in the past 65 years has been so dismal that some things are beyond reforms alone. Government policies have created strange vectors in the nation-building project and state-building – beyond a labyrinthine bureaucracy – has not happened either (in fact, what little had occurred was systematically destroyed from the late 1960s onwards). In India, at least when it comes to policy-making, it is not only reforms that is needed but intellectual capital, and that is a decades-long project. As the 20th century’s iconic realpolitiker warned, “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.”