Will Policy Studies Be The New MBA?

Why Public Policy graduates will be as sought-after as Management graduates in the next 20 years.

WrittenBy:Kunal Singh
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“The old rule of forecasting was to make as many forecasts as possible and publicize the ones you got right. The new rule is to forecast so far into the future that no one will know you got it wrong.” This is how Ruchir Sharma, head of Emerging Market Equities and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, begins the first chapter of his international bestseller, Breakout Nations. Taking the warning seriously, I will neither make many forecasts nor will I forecast about the next century.

Without building further suspense, I would like to put my prediction on the table – in the next 20 years, the domain of Public Policy will be as sought-after an academic discipline in India as Business Administration is today. However, the number of people graduating in Public Policy and related courses like Public Administration will be below disciplines like Business Administration because the direction of Public Policy itself will ensure this eventuality.

This leaves me with explaining two hypotheses: one, the increase in demand and supply of indigenous Public Policy graduates from almost zero today. And two, the cap that will be placed on the number of such graduates vis-à-vis Business Administration graduates.

The explanation for the former is more an academic analysis of the evolution of Public Policy. Any study of the evolution of Public Policy over the last two decades will testify to the increasing voter awareness about the policies and programmes of governments, whether at the Centre or the state-level.

The transformation of the political class-electorate relationship from a patron-client relationship to a more egalitarian participative relationship of co-travellers has been dotted with burgeoning legitimacy of civil society. There has been a surge in public institutions – like the judiciary and the comptroller auditor general (CAG) – playing the role of activists, and a rise in the number of both political and non-political mass movements.

The earlier relationship between the voter and the political candidate could not sustain an abstract promise like “development” as a credible narrative of a political campaign. This happened due to several reasons.

First, development in itself is not an end but a process. A process is always a weaker incentive than idyllic ends that used to pass off unchallenged in competing claims of electoral rhetoric. The reason it passed off unchallenged was not because the credibility of electoral promises was high, but the lack of successful precedents of cogent alternative claims and promises was stark.

Devesh Kapur in his chapter on “The Political Economy of the State” in The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (OCPI) comes a step closer to the actual reasons when he finds that “electoral competition…revolves around distributing public resources as club goods (goods with excludability characteristics) rather than providing pure public goods such as basic services with broad access”. Thus, creating exclusionary incentives with different groups was part of the inclusionary agenda of a political candidate.

To the surprise of conventionally-dogmatic political observers, the 2014 general elections bucked many fundamentalist trends of the established theory of Indian elections. Development did not just form a cogent narrative of the election campaign, it trumped upon other forces that tried to segregate voters by building a story of fear and apprehension.

This event, although not conclusively, certainly takes the transformation of citizenry-state relationship to more egalitarian levels by a significant leap. The same book, OCPI, has a chapter written by Yogendra Yadav in which he argues, “Lack of an informed citizenry and low levels of knowledge and awareness of the electorate make matters [of representation] worse. This leads to lack of issue orientation and ideology as reflected in clientalistic as opposed to programmatic political orientations, pragmatic preferences instead of ideological considerations, exaggerated role for charismatic personalities and the electoral game turning into an auction”.

The level of awareness of voters in the recently-concluded elections was unprecedentedly high. Yogendra Yadav would, I hope, agree. His party – the Aam Aadmi Party – also played a role in educating people about various nuances of governance such as gas pricing and its implication with not-so-brilliant results.

In keeping with the observations of Yadav, citizens have yet again gone with a pragmatic choice of a charismatic personality rather than an ideological choice. However, such choice does not preclude programmatic political considerations.

Citizens care more and more about the policies which govern them, and not just about who is governing them. Despite the huge mandate and immense popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many of his decisions have not gone unquestioned by voters.

The issue of inflation is back on the agenda and the truth about the promise of Achche Din is being investigated just a month into the new government taking over. Take the issue of the new government deciding to increase railway fares. The huge fan following of Narendra Modi will now try to study why this step was necessary and could not be simply wished away by his magic wand.

In spite of the hard-line, jingoist support that Modi nearly entirely commands, his invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony might just induce some of his followers to learn a thing or two about the imperatives of diplomacy.

Overall, a popular prime minister who has an eye for details of policy-making and who delineates a few of his policy prescriptions in his public speeches, obviously in simplified language shorn of policy jargon, further contributes to an informed citizenry. This will force his political rivals to counter him on policy issues without resorting to the argument of secularism for too long.

The competing claims grounded entirely on policy matters will not just educate citizens but also create a demand for more such knowledge.

The second formulation was that public policy itself will cap the number of Public Policy graduates. This is related to the direction public policy is likely to take. The Leftist narrative of command economy and planned state is out of vogue. The Planning Commission is likely to get refurbished, if not entirely wound up. The paradigm of government having no business to remain in business is likely to take roots.

Modi has till now just increased the railway fares. He has previously spoken of running private coaches on public railway tracks. Such reforms, if implemented, will give birth to a veritable rightward narrative in policy discourse. Private enterprises will be the bulk of economy and the State will perform the bare minimum functions of dispensing justice, providing law and order, enabling the growth of market-oriented forces and regulating the market. This will ensure the demand of graduates in Business Administration will continue to rise.

How, then, can I say that the Public Policy discipline will be as sought-after a discipline as that of Business Administration? Market forces will skew demand in favour of Business Administration graduates. This does not mean that the standing of a Business Administration graduate will necessary be higher than that of a Public Policy graduate.

Public Policy graduates, less in number, will be directing the course of interaction between various business houses in the market paradigm of the economy. The social standing that bureaucrats command today is on account of an element of dirigisme. The social standing that Public Policy graduates will command will be on account of performance and efficiency. Too good to be true?


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