agnipath: three missing links in India’s reform push: connecting stakeholders, clear communication, aligned system

The GoI, while initiating reforms, seems to fall into a strange cyclical trap – from announcement, communication failure and backfire to crisis management within days. The fundamental problem is the reluctance of key stakeholders and potential beneficiaries to take ownership and get things done.

As a result, the matter is ultimately left to the bureaucracy to pick up, mitigate and ensure political isolation wherever possible. While this may keep the ball in play, it raises doubts about the long-term viability of reforms and, in some cases, such as farm laws, even undermines the larger policy goal of creating a whole new ecosystem better suited to contemporary practices.

But if the current dispensation from his mandate is willing to show political will, then where is the problem? For deep structural reform to succeed, three elements must align: stakeholder buy-in, the communication strategy, and the system that executes it. Unless that happens, interest groups eager to maintain the status quo will find ways to scuttle the impact.

Take the Agnipath initiative. Here, the main stakeholder is the soldier, not the senior officer. It was therefore important that this scheme be explained and that doubts be clarified to serve the jawans before its deployment. Because a jawan is the first point of call for military aspirants in the rural recruiting areas of India. Thus, the site of speech and discussion should not have been only the hallowed halls of the southern block, but in the units and battalions where officers and soldiers interface, where all the preparatory work before the announcement should have been performed in contexts such as unit darbars. , etc.

Identifying key stakeholders and achieving appropriate outreach becomes even more important in today’s information-rich environment, where misinterpretations and rumors can gain prominence. More often than not, the communication strategy is centered on political prerequisites such as recognition of merit, etc., while other technical aspects are left to the system. Whether it’s small farmers, medium and small businesses on GST issues, or potential military recruits, the communication model fails to reach them. Worse, it ends up creating doubts and apprehensions, not to mention failing to assure and convince.

Selection of the fittest

The Agnipath initiative, for example, has been sought to be explained in various ways. But he did not anticipate the backlash caused by the revelation that this would be the primary route for jawans entering the military. The fact is that what is instituted is a four-year probationary period after which the fittest would be selected.

Let’s expand this a bit more to the larger issue of unemployment and the demand for government jobs in the current economic environment. Perhaps the way forward is to change the terms of engagement in government employment if that is to remain a mainstay. Already, over the years, more and more people are employed on contract. While this may reduce the attractiveness of the permanent nature of government jobs, it may allow more jobs to be created with greater frequency, as the waiting period for a sarkari recruitment advertisement is only getting longer.

The system, or bureaucracy, which is the third part of the execution matrix, is currently the chief crisis manager. This time around, the military bureaucracy felt the pressure as it cleaned things up. Here, the GoI can draw inspiration from its success with social schemes.

The malaise of the Indian system is the inability to connect the last mile. One of the major achievements of Narendra Modi is that on the welfare side, he has, through the deployment of digital technology and Direct Bank Transfer (DBT) tools, been able to close this gap to the extent where he reaps the rich political dividends of the BJP. A similar approach is needed for planning and implementing structural reforms that affect a larger mass of people.

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

It is important to note that they are quite different from the economic reforms of the 1990s, perhaps a much more difficult and arduous task. The actors of the economic space are generally more organized, which facilitates the holding of structured consultations.

Touch to connect

In structural reforms, political credibility and acceptance are almost always a prerequisite. This is why the Modi government is in the best position to initiate, shape and implement them, because any such reform will meet with resistance. But strong preparatory work between stakeholders and a clear communication strategy alongside a properly aligned system would be able to steer the discourse rather than just reacting to the crisis.

That said, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is uncharted territory when it comes to governance. There will be setbacks, protests and backtracking. The problem from a reform perspective, however, begins when the fallout begins to negatively impact deployment, as has happened with the Farm Bills. This is where investing in building credible reform actors, who own the policy and adopt it as their own, can be key.

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