Why Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate to breath safely

Friday, January 22, 2010

Recent victory of Scott Brown has sent a cold shiver down the spine of every Democrat who supported President Obama's signature health care bill. With his victory, Brown becomes the 41st Republican vote in the Senate, the upper house of American Congress, having total membership of 100. Now, why is this number, 41, so important for Republicans? Why democrats are apprehensive of safe passage of the health care bill? Why could it possibly shatter Obama's health care dream?

Checks and Balances, Filibuster
Congress of the United States is bicameral and the Senate sees itself as a check against the more-populist whims of the House of Representatives, i.e. the lower house of American Congress. The principle of Checks and Balances enshrined in the American constitution ensures certain degree of control of one branch of the government over the other (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary being three branches of the government). Since the Congress of the United States is bicameral, the Legislative branch of the government has a degree of self-checking. In United States, for a bill to become law, both the houses must agree upon the bill (and sort out the differences if any). [You may want to know, How a Bill Becomes a Law in USA. Read here or here]. The Senate has created long-standing rules that make it easier for its members to block bills. One of the most famous way is a filibuster, which means a senator can control the floor indefinitely to block a vote.

The Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak on the bill as long as they wish. This gives Republicans to go on debating health care bill indefinitely. However, this kind of marathon debate can be brought to an end if 3/5th  of the Senators (i.e. 60 out of 100 Senators "duly chosen and sworn") agree to end the debate. In parliamentary procedure, this process of bringing the debate to an end with the support of 3/5th members of the house is called Cloture. i.e. "if a minority of 40 senators refuses to stop talking, then you need 60 of them to invoke the rule that shuts the others up and allows the bill to come to vote. If you don't have 60 votes to break the filibuster, it doesn't matter if you have 50 votes to pass the bill."

Why Scott Brown's Victory is so crucial?
Thus, if Democrats wants to stop the debate and make way for safe passage of the health care bill, they need the support of at least 60 senators. Since the Senate has 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and 2 independents, Democrats alone cannot ensure the end of health care debate in the Senate, even if they have the support of 2 independents. They still need one more Republican vote. This is where Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts - that was long held by a democrat, Edward M. Kennedy - has become crucial for Republicans and thrown the democrats into disarray.

It's not just for the health care bill, but Republicans can frustrate Obama by using filibuster for each and every other bill. Thus, delaying or blocking the bills altogether. May be this is the reason why Obama said that the country's institutions are not matching up to those sound values of American people.

The way ahead: Available alternatives for Obama
Democrats could try to convince a Republican (and 2 independents) to support their bill. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, did vote for a health reform bill in committee, but Republicans such as Utah's Orrin Hatch seem confident Snowe would oppose a final bill.

Another obvious possibility is Democrats could scale down the scope of the bill to try to garner Republican support.

In the worst case, Democrats "could try to use a relatively arcane rule called reconciliation that only requires 51 votes in the Senate, but only involves budget items. Leading Democrats are even confused on how this works and are now discussing the matter with their lawyers." [Read more about reconciliation procedure here].

In the most unlikely case, Democrats with their majority in the Senate can choose to do away with filibuster itself and then ensure a safe passage of the bill (57 democrates, which is 6 more than the majority of the house). But, current Senate rules state that 67 (2/3rd majority) votes are required for future rule changes. However, in 1892 Supreme Court of the United states ruled that, changes to Senate rules could however be achieved by a simple majority. Thus, the filibuster could be changed by majority (51 out of 100) vote(s), using the so-called Nuclear option, also called the "constitutional option" for political reasons and because of its roots in constitutional majoritarianism. However this may not be in the democratic interest of American people.

Whatever the case may be, Obama has a rough road ahead.

Further Reading:
  1. G.O.P. Senate Victory Stuns Democrats - NY Times.
  2. Cloture, Filibuster on wiki.
  3. Would a final reform bill need 60 votes?
  4. The 50-Vote Senate by Ezra Klein
  5. Dream Killer: How Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts will kill health reform.

Police Reforms: Too Important to Neglect, Too Urgent to Delay

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"The public perceive the police as a "closed fraternity"; they are rude, cruel and corrupt; they are partisan during communal riots; they are not "popular"; they are politically pliable; they are "inactive if there is no pressure, excessively reactive if there is pressure and rarely professionally proactive"; they are "criminals in uniform"; they are also immoral [The Hindu]." Back in 2006, Noida (Nithari) killings "shook the conscience of the Indian society. The Noida incident was a pointer to the breakdown of policing at each level, particularly at the cutting edge level, and the complete erosion of police as the basic institution for internal security [src]." The recent Ruchika Girhotra case has aggravated the already damaged the image of police system. It is high time for us to realize that our country needs sweeping reforms in outdated, colonial era police system.

Need for Police reforms
The existing police system was created in an age in which the crimes as witnessed in the contemporary society were far from imagination. Indian police force was trained in the past to serve the objective of colonial rule and has not yet been granted the much needed autonomy, resources. Over the past one and half century, though the performance of police is NOT entirely disappointing, we have seen a "steady deterioration of standards of policing, the increasing lawlessness amongst the policemen themselves and the attitude of complacency and complicity amongst the leadership in the police organizations."

Existing police system functions in an authoritarian setting. "It has become a coercive apparatus of the government. We need reforms to make police efficient, effective, people friendly and accountable;  to arrest the corruption and break the police nexus with anti-social elements; to bring attitudinal changes in police personnel to assist the community when needed. We need a new framework for police system which can "reflect the expectations of the people regarding the police in the modern democratic society. The use of scientific investigation methods to strengthen the criminal justice system, enabling the police to tackle futuristic trends and organized crime including cyber crime." All in all, we need 21st century police system to deal with 21st century crimes.

Efforts made so far
From 1947, commission after commission has criticized the police system.  Justice Dayal commission of inquiry into the riots in various parts of the country in 1967 found that, "either there was no police force to deal with the mischief-makers or it had no directions to act." Dating from 1979, successive governments have promised police reforms to the people of India. Recommendations for reform made by several police commissions, at national as well as State levels, are kept in cold storage, all because of vested interests, bureaucratic and political.

Shah Commission of Inquiry appointed to look into excesses committed during the Emergency. The National Police Commission (NPC) chaired by Dharam Vira appointed in 1977 submitted eight reports between 1979 and 1981 suggesting wide ranging reforms in the existing police set-up. The reports were so comprehensive that, "the successive committees—Rebeiro (1998), Padmanabhaiah (2000), Malimath (2000), which situated the police reforms in the Criminal Justice System framework and Soli Sorabji (2005), appointed to draft a new Police Act—have used the NPC report and recommendations therein as the reference point."

More over, Supreme court has  issued several directives to reform the existing police system. Ironically, many sought revision of orders by supreme court, albeit unsuccessfully. Directions of the Supreme Court to all State Govts. in a PIL filed by an ex-Police Officer (Prakash Singh vs. Union of India – WP No. 310 0f 1996) have been systematically ignored. Justice Mishra’s recommendations for police investigations, Supreme court Judgement in Vineet Narain 1998, Vohra Committee recommendations and several other measures suggested by various judgments/committees haven't found a place in governments agenda of reforms.

Soli Sorabjee Committee on Police Reforms
"The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, having visualized the long-felt need to replace the 146 year old Police Act 1861, set up a Committee of Experts, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Soli J. Sorabjee, , former Attorney General, Government of India. in September 2005 to draft a new Police Act 2007 that could meet, inter alia, the growing challenges to policing and to fulfil the democratic aspirations of the people.The Committee had been tasked to draft a new Police Act in view of the changing role/responsibility of police and the challenges.[Read More]"

The committee has made sweeping recommendations and if implemented the country could see a new era of police system. Some of the recommendations include,
  • State Police Complaint Authority to look after the complaints of misconduct against the officers of the rank of SP and above. The "District Complaint Authority" would look into the complaints against officers of the rank DSP and below.
  • Noting that accountability of police officers is paramount, the committee suggested to introduce criminal penalties for some of the common derelictions like non-registration of FIR, unlawful arrest and detentions.
  • National Security Commission headed by the union home minister for the selection and placement of chiefs of central police organizations like BSF, CRPF, SSB, CISF, etc.. In states the State Security Commission would act as a watchdog and be headed by the Chief minister.
  • Fixed tenure for senior officers so that they are free of "political transfers". The "Police Establishment Board" would look after transfers, postings and promotion of officers below the rank of DSP and other personnel.
  • Bifurcation of investigation and law and order duties. This, if implemented, will definitely help improve the quality of investigation and hence the conviction rate.

The recommendations made by Soli Sorabjee committee have a far reaching implications and it is only hoped that these are implemented at the earliest and in letter and spirit. More over, in March 2008, Supreme court has expressed its willingness to have a committee in place to monitor the implementations of police reforms across all states, union territories including the center.

The way forward
Noida (Nithari) Killings of 2006, Ruchika Girhotra case have again ignited the debate of police reforms. As a first sign, Central Police Awards Committee (CPAC) "has taken a generic decision to authorize the Ministry of Home Affairs to recommend the withdrawal of police medal to all persons who are convicted for moral turpitude and for an act that brings disrespect to police forces, or any officer who is dismissed from the service by Centre or the state for his act which brought disrepute to the police.”

Modern day police need to be highly professional, service oriented, free from extraneous influences and yet accountable to the people. Today, there is a general agreement for replacing the colonial era Police Act of 1861. The new Police Act, as proposed by the government based on the recommendations of Soli Sorabjee Committee, has codified many reform recommendations in the past including measures for attitudinal changes of police. Also, the concern for human rights, weaker sections, women have been addressed.

It is high time that both the government and the civil society take responsibility for the police reforms. There are reforms that people can initiate. "Every society gets the police it deserves. After all, policemen come from the same society and reflect the attitudes and behaviors that are found in the society."Civil Society and the media can help improve the status and efficiency of the police by exposing the loop holes. If "people can cooperate in law enforcement, there is bound to be welcome response from other side that eventually results in better law and order situation." It is not fair to blame the government all the time. It's time for the people to accept their responsibilities and force the government to realize that police reforms are too important to neglect and too urgent to delay.

Further Reading
  1. Police Reforms initiatives in India - A report
  2. Police Reforms at Sixty.
  3. CHRI: Police Reforms.
  4. Analysis of Police Act 2007.
  5. A judicial nudge to long-overdue police reforms - The Hindu.

Overcoming the implementation hurdles of NREGS

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In the last six decades, India has experimented large number of policies and programs to wipe out poverty. India has a long history and experience in creating unique policies and programs such as, Community Development Programme, Minimum Needs Programme, Twenty Point Programme, Training of rural youth for Self Employment, National Rural Development Programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme, Antyodaya Yojana, Indira Awasa Yojana, Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, etc.. Long history of these programmes suggests that, there is no dearth of policy making talent in India. Our bureaucrats have come up with innovative ideas to change the lives around. But when it comes to the implementation of those innovative ideas, the government institutions have failed significantly.

All the programmes and policies experimented so far were intended more or less for three important tasks - reduction of poverty, creation of employment, and minimizing inequality. One of the major factor in the failure of many policies in the past is that they were all "supply driven", meaning, "giving fish to the poor rather than teaching him how to fish." Addressing this issue has been the major focus of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). In contrast to earlier programmes, NREGS is a demand driven programme, meaning, "providing work only if it is demanded." The demand is created through various projects in the scheme. On the one hand, this programmes is intended to build rural infrastructure and on the other hand, it is empowering rural India by providing employment (on demand). It is addressing all three requirements - reduction of poverty, creation of employment, and minimizing inequality - to empower rural India. More over, it is said that, "impressive participation of women in NREGS is a harbinger of social change."

"NREGS is one of the greatest experiments undertaken in India to eradicate poverty. The scheme has been launched to supplement the error and gaps of all previous schemes with involvement ofPanchayats , civil societies and local administration. Poor families were targeted to give benefits of employments and livelihood to supplement their family income [Kurukshetra, December 2009]." However, like in the past, this scheme too has suffered various implementation problems.
  1. Accountability has been undermined. Example, In Orissa, out of Rs. 733 crores spend under NREGS, more than Rs. 500 crores was unaccounted for, probably siphoned off and misappropriated by government officials.
  2. Fake job cards and fabricated muster rolls exaggerated the benefits of the scheme.
  3. The social audit was non-existent, which is vital for transparency. 
  4. There was an apathy towards creating awareness about the programme. For example, in some districts it appeared that people knew very little aboutwork-site entitlements like place of rest during work, crèche facilities for the workers’ babies, safe drinking water facilities, and medical treatment in case of accidents and compensation entitlement in case of death during work.
  5. Tampering of muster rolls, delayed payments, use of machines to siphon off funds, etc were common problems in many districts.
  6. Lack of adequate and devoted administrative and technical staff for NREGS is the major reason for procedural lapses.
So far, there have been number of suggestions to tackle all these problems, but the inertia developed in the past has been proving difficult to overcome. Many policy analysts have suggested that,
  1. Dedicated and fully trained full-time professionals should be appointed for the effective implementation of the scheme.
  2. Role of panchayats in proper planning, implementation and monitoring of NREGS should be enhanced.
  3. Proper maintenance of job cards, muster rolls and other records relating to the scheme at the block and panchayat level should be ensured.
  4. Massive programme to generate awareness about NREGS.
  5. Other measures to improve accountability and transparancy.
Though most of them sound important and "must have" procedures, they can still be deceived by those who siphon of the benefits. The fundamental problem in incorporating these suggestions is that, we do not have a strong Ombudsman system at local level (To give you a quick idea, Lokayukta is one good example for Ombudsman system at state level). There is a need to appoint district level and block level Ombudsman who will receive complaints directly from the 'common man' and facilitate their disposal in accordance with the law. District collector may be given adequate powers to facilitate this Ombudsman system. Just as higher officials are apprehensive of Lokayukta, the local level officials will be careful enough to avoid corrupt practices which would otherwise be brought to the light by local Ombudsman. It is interesting to note that Kerala has already set up a local Ombudsman system, take a look.

Also, in realizing the goals of government policies social audit plays an important role. "Social audit helps to narrow gaps between vision/goal and reality, between efficiency and effectiveness. Social auditing creates an impact upon governance. It values the voice of stakeholders, including marginalized/poor groups whose voices are rarely heard. Social auditing is taken up for the purpose of enhancing local governance, particularly for strengthening accountability and transparency in local bodies [FAO]." It is high time that the social audit procedures should be brought in the picture to enhance the quality of implementation of the programmes.

Unique Identification Development Authority of India (UIDA) has a significant role to play in the implementation of public policies. So far, identifying the real beneficiaries has been a major problem. For example, under many schemes, most of the benefits have gone to the powerful section where as 'poor man' continued to suffer. Unique identity card can play a significant role in identifying the real beneficiaries.

Programmes like NREGS are real drivers of rural economy. They are the foundations of rural empowerment. Unless we build sound mechanisms and frameworks for systematic and transparent implementation of these programmes, empowering India remains a distant dream.

PS: Some of the facts and data used in this post are from Kurukshetra, December 2009 issue.

Further Reading:
  1. Know everything about NREGS.
  2. NREGS's official website.
  3. NREGS on wiki.
  4. Read December 2009 issue of Kurukshetra.
  5. A primer to NREGS.

"The Powers to LEAD" - by Joseph Nye

Saturday, January 2, 2010

One and half years back, I had bought this book, "The Powers to Lead" written by Joseph Nye, Professor at Harvard Kennedy school of government. Looking at the amount of dust it carried over the last many months, i decided to finish reading this book as soon as I can: as one of my resolution for the new year;  glad i could finish it in two days!

Ever since the ruling power was transitioned from Kings to the Presidents and Prime Ministers, the interest in leadership studies received a new momentum. So far there have been 8 major theories of leadership. "Trait-centered approach dominated the scene up to the late 1940s, but scholars found it impossible to identify all the traits that predicted leadership under all conditions." Later scholars tried to figure out all the variables which could determine good leadership. But it was difficult to make a complete study by keeping some variables (of leadership) unchanged and allowing others to change. Simply because good leadership is determined by many variables depending on the given context. There have been number of efforts to study leadership based on "situations", "behaviors of leaders under specific circumstances", "Participation", "management", etc... But so far scholars haven't been able to come up with a comprehensive theory which can help societies to "create" good leaders who can change the lives around.

Professor Nye attempts to helps us understand "who is a good leader?", by focusing his analysis on the types of leaders needed for modern democratic organizations and societies. "He uses examples of political, social, and business leaders to illustrate various leadership styles, and he invites the reader to reconsider some accepted wisdom about leadership by introducing new approaches". Prof. Nye coined a new term and called it "Soft Power" to explain leadership (and power). He says, " Police power, financial power, and the ability to hire and fire are the examples of tangible, 'hard power' that can be used to get others to change their position. Hard power rests on inducements (carrots) and threats (sticks). But sometimes one can get the outcomes one wants by setting the agenda and attracting others without threat or payment. This is Soft Power: getting the outcomes one wants by attracting others rather than manipulating their material incetives. It co-opts people rather than coerces them".

He completely rules out the traditional argument that leaders are born and cannot be made. "Leaders can be made", he reiterates. Prof Nye gives various examples on hard and soft power and makes an in depth analysis of leadership under various contexts: public, private and social. Porf Nye finds out that, "the most effective leaders are actually those who combine hard and soft power skills in proportions that vary with different situations." He calls this "Smart Power". He emphasizes more on the context and leader's contextual intelligence for good leadership. He has dedicated one full chapter to analyze "good leaders and bad leaders". With wide ranging examples, he cogently explains how one can manipulate or balance hard and soft powers under various circumstances to become a good leader.

At the end of his book, it is interesting to note Professor Nye agreeing, "Leadership is not learned primarily from books, but books like this can help make people more aware of the lessons of the history.... Art history does not produce great painters, but it can help develop and educate intuitions." Certainly, this book from Professor Nye can help anyone build and strengthen the intuitions needed for being a better leader in the information age.

Pages: 145, (Total: 226)
Price: $21.95, Rs. 450 (hardcover)
Publisher: Oxford University Press.

See Also:
  1. Prof. Nye on Soft Power - Watch on Youtube [50 mins].
  2. Book Review by Christine Feroli.
  3. Buy this book on Amazon.
  4. Quick overview of this book.

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.