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Article Article December 8th, 2017

What does 'government legitimacy' mean in India?

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How can government in India become more legitimate? @BhartiAparajita of @ylacindia reports... #FindingLegitimacy

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Social media has improved access to government but there needs to be better responsiveness, says @BhartiAparajita #FindingLegitimacy

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Government needs to create institutional ways to take into account citizens' opinions, says @BhartiAparajita #FindingLegitimacy

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There are some questions to which answers are many and none of them are wrong. "What does government legitimacy mean?" is one such question, especially in India, which has been famously described as an "argumentative" country by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Finding Legitimacy in India

A diverse group of people with a variety of different views gathered in New Delhi for the recent Finding Legitimacy conversation. Some were convinced that inclusiveness and transparency are paramount in governments' ability to maintain legitimacy among citizens. Others, however, challenged this assertion; arguing that it was more important for a government to deliver efficiently rather than being overly procedural and inclusive, especially when a large part of the population still does not have access to essential services.

This disagreement led to comparisons with China and Singapore that have less open political systems but possess a high degree of legitimacy because of their ability to deliver a high quality of life. Few of the participants who work with marginalised communities in rural areas questioned this "ends justifying means" approach. They argued that, in fact, marginalised communities that find it difficult to access welfare benefits have a higher stake in transparency and inclusiveness of government. For example, the "Right to Information" movement - which aims to remove corruption in the distribution of government benefits - started from a small village in India.

Perfect policymaking?

This led to an interesting discussion on what a policymaking process would look like for it to be inclusive, transparent and efficient. Most people in the room agreed that executive rule-making in India is currently a little opaque, and a mandatory public consultation process and requirement for impact analysis needs to be legislated. To prevent a public consultation process from becoming a delaying tactic or analysis paralysis situation, it was felt that the consultation process needs to be time-bound and impact analysis requirements well defined.

It was also felt that confusion leads to a loss of trust in government. After a policy decision has been taken, the government should work extra hard to break down new legal requirements, rules and procedures into specific "calls to action" to communicate to the citizens. This is especially relevant as the government integrates technology to a greater degree in its delivery of services at the grassroots level. This also means that bureaucracy and frontline service providers need to be better trained on legal and procedural requirements to be able to communicate those effectively to citizens in their interactions.

Spotlighting social media

The increasing role of social media in government-citizen interactions was also discussed at length. Most agreed that social media has improved access to elected representatives and government officials. However, with increased access, people also expect better responsiveness. This is where governments, politicians and public service providers can do better. They need to implement systems and processes to be able to effectively resolve people's concerns and feedback that they hear on social media. When citizens feel that they are not being heard even after reaching out on social media, the feeling is more of resentment than empowerment.

Another recurring theme was the need for better coordination between different levels of the government. India has a federal political structure, and many issues fall within the shared ambit of central, state and local governments. However, the multiplicity of government agencies and departments has often led to inaction and blame shifting. This creates distrust among citizens on government's ability to deliver. A "visibly collaborative" approach, especially in times of crisis, gives more confidence to people.

Defining 'legitimacy'

The need for accountability was also another aspect that emerged central to the idea of "legitimacy".  There needs to be a process to review the impact of a policy after it has been implemented, so that the required adjustments can be made or the policy be rolled back. Participants felt that a lack of institutionalised feedback mechanism on policy measures leads to greater distance betweenthe citizens and  policymakers. This relates to the point about transparency and inclusiveness, but also deals more specifically with governments' communication with citizens at each step of the policy cycle.

While the definition of legitimacy varied from person to person, it was evident that in a country as vast and diverse as India, there was an equal concern for processes and outcomes. Trust is not just built by the actions of political leaders at the highest levels of government but also by frontline service providers by giving clarity of direction to people in their day-to-day lives.

Legitimacy is also about access and accountability in equal parts and they complement each other. More importantly, legitimacy stems from being inclusive and being able to weigh diverse opinions and interests at the policy formulation stage. The ability of citizens to be heard, acknowledged and redressed during the policymaking process builds trust with the government.

Ultimately, legitimacy is a two-way street - the government needs to create legitimate and institutional ways to take into account the opinions of citizens, be transparent about its decision making and create open channels to elicit feedback. In return, citizens will have more faith in the government's intent and ability to deliver, lending it greater support and creating room for it to be more effective in the long run.


What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 


Written by:

Aparajita Bharti Co-founder, Young Leaders for Active Citizenship, India
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