Democracy without politics and citizenship without rights are the twin pillars of ‘good governance’. India is in the throes of a fierce passion for governance. Not just any governance but ‘maximum governance’; preferably in a combo with ‘minimum government’. We are the only country in the world that officially celebrates Christmas as ‘Good Governance Day’. Nobody speaks of the need for a good government anymore – only good governance.

A brief history of ‘governance’

The term ‘governance’ was first used — in the sense in which it is deployed today — by the World Bank in a 1989 report on African economies. Trying to account for the failure of its Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), the World Bank put the blame on a “crisis of governance.”

But ‘crisis of governance’ doesn’t convey much unless one defines ‘governance’. The World Bank initially defined it simply as “the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs”. This early definition is quite indicative of the animating logic and future discursive career of governance: it is silent on the legitimacy or otherwise of the political power in question. So whether the Bank’s client was a democracy or a dictatorship didn’t matter. What mattered for governance is that efficient management must trump politics. Efficient management, just to be clear, means the withdrawal of the state in favour of the market.


Over the years, the World Bank expanded its ‘governance’ model to include elements of a liberal democracy, such as a legal framework for enforcement of contracts, accountability, etc. At the same time, it brokered a marriage between governance and development. Nations deemed to be in need of ‘development’ could now be told that the only way to get ‘development’ is through ‘governance’ — that is, by embracing the free market.
But for this, it was necessary to first create a demand for good governance. That meant identifying the markers of ‘bad governance’. Unfortunately, what constitutes ‘bad governance’ in the neo-liberal text book — an activist state trying to even out socio-economic disparities through distributive justice — is rather popular among the masses, especially the poor. In an electoral democracy, a direct attack on welfare was never going to resonate beyond the rich and middle-classes, as successive governments in India have found to their cost.

Corruption and governance

Enter corruption, the godfather of good governance. ‘Corruption’ is not an ahistorical, value-neutral descriptor. Even in the short span of India’s post-independence history, it has been deployed in different ways in the service of different political agendas. Matthew Jenkins, a historian of corruption, has written about how, for instance, in JP Narayan’s movement for ‘total revolution’ in the 1970s, corruption denoted something very different from what it did in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation of 2011.

For Narayan, corruption was a moral evil. As Jenkins puts it, Narayan “viewed the capitalist system itself as corrupt”. He cites Narayan’s famous quote that “wealth cannot be amassed except by exploitation.” But the anti-corruption discourse that grew around the Hazare movement did not share Narayan’s reservations about the corrupting influences of the profit motive. Corruption as a morally charged idea had disappeared altogether. What replaced it was a narrow, technical idea of corruption as bribery, which went well with the economistic notion of man as a rational agent who responds to incentives.

Overnight, the entire political class, the bureaucracy, and social infrastructure (such as the public distribution system, for instance), began to be deemed as hotbeds of corruption and held solely responsible for the state’s failures to deliver the benefits of economic growth. Conversely, any government engaged in the delivery of socially critical economic goods was held to be offering incentives for corruption.

In other words, it is not neo-liberal economic polices but corruption that is to blame for the benefits of economic growth not trickling down — or not trickling down enough — to the masses.

Now that corruption had been identified as the biggest hurdle to economic development, the stage was set for its antidote: good governance. This trajectory – of aspirations first raised and then betrayed by economic reforms, leading to mass discontent, which zeroes in on corruption as the problem, with good governance presented as the solution – is very evident in recent Indian history. But it is by no means unique to India. As Jenkins points out, the “international anti-corruption consensus” has been a powerful vehicle for manoeuvring recalcitrant nations onto the neo-liberal track.

Written By : Satyam Prajapat



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