The art of policymaking: Lessons from Gandhi

He was creative, and eschewed ‘evidence’ and ‘data’, much in fashion today

Diwakar Jhurani | May 7, 2019


#Mahatma Gandhi   #MK Gandhi   #Gandhi sesquicentennial   #policymaking  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

What if Mahatma Gandhi were a policymaker in today’s modern world? How would he have framed public policies? Would he have gone with the trendy ‘evidence-based’ policymaking, or something else? Before going into that, let me state the context. Welfare policies for the developing world are now swamped with a unique design methodology that either endorses policies that have “worked in the past”, or frames new policies using scientific techniques. These techniques establish a policy’s vitality purely on its ability to deliver on a predetermined specific objective, using data-based evidence. Quantitative evidence has gained so much prominence as the basis of decision making that even a hint of it is now enough for a policy to be considered good or bad. 

 
The role of evidence in policy-making 
A common technique used to muster data-based evidence these days is randomized control trials (RCTs). RCTs are commonly used in medical experiments. In such experiments the effect of a medicine (let’s call it Formula X) is tested by selecting a random sample (say, 100 people) from a large population. Out of these, a test group (50 people out of the selected 100) and a control group (the remaining 50) are formed. Formula X will be tested on all 50 members of the test group and nothing will be tested on the control group. Formula X is declared effective if the test group shows reasonable impact in comparison to the control group. 
 
This way of testing the effectiveness of medicines is used to test the effectiveness of policy interventions meant to help the poor. The principle of this approach rests on using evidence from a small sample or historical instances (if available) and applying it to solve present problems. Or to put it more simply, the basis of designing any public policy is the evidence that it “works” at least in some part of the world. So, the inference is that if a policy works in a village in Bangladesh, it should be apt for a village in Rajasthan in India as well. 
 
There are two fundamental problems with this approach. While medicines mostly deal with physiological characteristics that are much easier to predict, policy interventions deal with psychological aspects that are far more unpredictable. Secondly, the cultural and psychological diversity between two neighbouring regions is so significant that to replicate policies in a particular geography just because they showed some results elsewhere is not fully convincing. 
 
If such is the case, then why has evidence (and in most cases data-based evidence) gained prominence over all other factors that are critical for good public policies? There are a couple of reasons. Data-based evidence provides instant gratification to policymakers and academics, thereby eliminating the extra effort to analyse other important factors that may either point in another direction or may help identify elements that add value to the overall policy design. Secondly, it is difficult to quantify crucial but hazy factors, while data is easily available and presentable. We live in a world where objective and clear decisions are considered good. Thus, why factor in something that clouds the numeric decision tree or imposes subjective costs and benefits?
 
Gandhi and evidence-based policymaking
Now let’s turn to Gandhiji. If evidence was the sole basis of designing policy, then what references did Gandhiji have to lead the freedom struggle? Recall that he was born in 1869 and his first Satyagraha movement in South Africa was in 1906. What had “worked” before this time in history that should have motivated his policy and strategy to free people from oppression, be it in India or South Africa? Here are two salient examples: The American Revolution (1765 to 1783) where the American Patriots fought a war for independence from Great Britain and won freedom in 1776, and the French Revolution (1789 onwards) which saw a bloody battle between the common masses and an oppressive monarchy. Even if these two weren’t enough to learn what had worked in the past, Gandhiji could have learnt from the Russian Revolution of 1917. The common themes across all these three major revolutions are that their objective was similar (to dethrone an oppressive regime), the scale was massive (at a national level), they were all violent and the best part is they all “worked”. All four factors matched Gandhiji’s policy challenge to free India from colonialism. 
 
So, what if Gandhiji had hired a consulting firm that advocates evidence-based policymaking to advise him on the best possible strategy to uproot the British? My guess is that the final consulting presentation would have recommended him to lead a violent struggle, after all it had worked at a similar scope and scale, just in different geographies. However, as we all know, Gandhiji chose a different path – that of nonviolence and peaceful resistance. History books suggest Gandhi picked up nonviolence as a virtue early in his childhood through his exposure to Jainism and consolidated it later through his study of Hindu texts. He popularised and practised the Sanskrit phrase, ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ (Nonviolence is the supreme duty) that finds multiple references in the Mahabharata. I would argue that Gandhiji was a smart policymaker who didn’t give in to the temptation of going with what “worked”. He crafted a way that was moral and at same time conducive to the conditions he operated in. And the best part is that his approach “worked” too and achieved the end goal of independence while setting a new moral benchmark for the world. 
 
If evidence is not enough, what is?
One crucial element that Gandhiji inducted in his method of policy selection is to make the policy resonate with the best of culture and values associated with humankind. That nonviolence is better than violence is perhaps a norm true in all cultures and religions; and Gandhiji used it artfully and as a matter of conviction. He appealed to common people to join the freedom movement not just to attain swarajya (or self-rule) but to fulfill their collective aspiration of Ramrajya (installing a just and humane government focused on welfare of all citizens). It is important to remember that Ramrajya should not be construed with Hindu religion alone. Gandhiji himself clarified this when he said, “My Rama is another name for Khuda or God. I want Khuda raj, which is the same thing as the Kingdom of God on earth.” 
 
In a country that’s so deeply religious, this was nothing short of a policy innovation that bonded two major elements of (a) doing the right thing, and (b) shaping policy in such a way that it resonates with majority of people. Another important insight for policymakers from Gandhiji is that the ‘means’ are as important as the ‘ends’. Any policy is not good enough just because it ends up achieving a pre-determined narrow objective. Also, it is important to recognise that just because Gandhiji chose a particular approach doesn’t mean that what the Russians or French or Americans did was wrong. Their approaches were perhaps more prudent for their times and conditions. 
 
All these arguments also don’t mean that all policy recommendations by Gandhiji hold true in today’s advanced world. Communities have evolved, and so have behaviours. But Gandhiji’s fundamental approach of policy formulation is worth emulating. My broad conclusion from Gandhiji’s art of policy-making is that “evidence” is not enough to create meaningful policies. It needs to be tested on at least two other and perhaps more important parameters, righteousness of the policy and resonance with the local cultural and ethical norms. This also doesn’t mean that evidence should be ignored. After all, there is a decent possibility that without evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolence displayed by Gandhiji, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela would have chosen different paths. Evidence is good but the absence of it should not be a predicament for adopting new and bold public policies that make social and moral sense. 

Jhurani is a young professional with the economic advisory council to the PM. The views expressed are personal.

(The article appears in May 15, 2019 edition)

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