Book review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: The Third Eye of Governance
Author: Dr N Bhaskara Rao
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
Populism may be a decent expression for politicians; but social science researches would give a damn to the way government policies are planned shorn of any rationality and wisdom. Research is key to whatever social development one talks about because that gives an edge to the expected change. This book takes forward precisely the idea of good research and the downsides of not having an investigation into the way governments’ function.
The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao is an eye-opening book because it is written by a pioneer of social research in India. Being Founder Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) and of Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA), Rao built up the equally prestigious Operations Research Group (ORG) as its CEO.A member of the National Population Policy Committee and one who reorganized the media units of the Information and Broadcasting ministry, Rao has authored a couple of other books : Social Impact of Mass Media, A Handbook of Poll Surveys in Media , Sustainable Good Governance, Development and Democracy, Citizen Activism in India and The TRP Trick: How Television in India Was Hijacked.
A first-of-its-kind history and analysis of social research in India from Independence to the present, this book discusses India’s most important research projects, and the policies based on them. That includes the family planning programme, the five-year plans and the decennial census which has been put on hold because of the pandemic.
According to Dr Rao, there has been a steady decline in social research with the rise of populism in Indian politics, and there is an utter disregard for transparency and accountability. The volume shows how data, statistics, analysis and research have become politically sensitive and belligerent. Rao argues that if the current refrains about development and progress are backed by applied social research, India can reach new heights in democracy, development, and governance.
Forthright to the core, Rao says with political parties dominating policies, there has been a greater emphasis on winning elections. And this trepidation has to become the priority for research. He contends that research is a distinctive form of enquiry — and that is why he calls it ‘third eye of governance’. The book is a valuable investigation of public policy successes and failures of governments led by different PMS, from Nehru and Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
Writes Rao: “Populism is an outlook of leaders, and a methodology and strategy of those in power to control, command, and exert their authority. What we are witnessing today is an altogether new populism where ideology has little importance. The new instruments of communication and network have changed the course so much that populism is being made to appear or sound synonymous to democracy and development, when in fact it can turn out be a countervailing phenomenon.
“What is being regarded as a boom may turn out to be a bubble. This depends on the leaders’ grip or control over the instruments of administrative authority or political power. In populism, the difference between ends and means becomes blurred.”
Terming the new wave of populism sweeping across the nation ‘rhetoric-centered’, he argues: “It purports people as masses but is led by a few who are masters of rhetoric. Here, institutions matter less, as do future implications and research and feedback. Populism depends on revisiting the past rather than focusing on the future beyond three-five years. Polarizing people through destabilization is part of the strategy. Perpetuating hate, anger, and resentment form the core of populism and help sustain the phenomena. Double-talk also comes handy in this process.”
Academically comprehensive, the book cites the example of how the ‘melting pot’ idea of American society in the mid-20th century was studied closely by sociologists and contributed to the assimilation process that changed the course of American social progress by changing the mindset. In India, however, Rao says, despite Nehru embarking on the idea of assimilation, people continue more divided, and development has not reached a large number. Part of the reason, according to him, is the lack of critical research and independent appraisal of policies and plans.
While acknowledging the potential of the development themes echoed by Prime Minister Modi, Rao points out the glaring gaps between the stated intention and actual practice. The ideas have to be backed by “high-quality independent and unbiased research”. Slogans and themes such as ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (united, we progress)’ deserve to be followed up far more seriously, consistently, and critically.
The government’s recent campaigns such as Swachh Bharat (clean India) or Smart Cities has brought about a new research. He calls it “Endorsement research” or supportive research. Whether research is independent is no longer the preferred criteria. Even the credibility of independent institutions, which have been the primary sources for the country’s statistics, have come under questioning. There has been more reliance on audit-based method than evaluative research in recent years, according to the book.
Divided into ten chapters and running through a little more than 300 pages, the book unequivocally tells how credible public institutions of the country are being reduced to the level of drum beaters. “Covid numbers being doled out by state after state reminds the extent political leaders stoop to suit their immediate advantages. As if we are reviving a regime of numbers.”
The book further says, citizen activism, debates, deliberations, and checks and balances are no longer virtues, and may even be snubbed. Populism does not care so much for self-correctives or plurality. He goes to the extent of saying populism needs an imaginary or a virtual villain or an enemy to prompt realignments. It submits a polarization that thrives in terms of ‘We of now’ and ‘They of the past’.
Dr Rao delves into the history, successes, and failures of research since Independence. He seeks to “regroup social sciences towards a trajectory of good governance, development and democracy, so that social research can lead towards a citizen-centric, society-sensitive future than one focused on just the market and consumer”.
With a foreword by Dr RA Mashlekar, former Director General Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the book is in-depth, fetching and has a broad sweep. It looks at the outlines of public and social research in India through a critical lens. An indispensable read.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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