Emergence of the fifth pillar of democracy
Nikhil Nadiger
February 13, 2020

While the origins of democracy can be traced back to 6th century BC in Ancient Greece, democracy made its way to India almost 2,300 years later, in 1951. The construct and deepening of democracy in India has taken a unique, tumultuous path rooted in the socio-economic fabric of the country.

Over the last 70 years, the three pillars on which Indian democracy rests—the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary—have been instrumental in both preventing the overreach of either pillar as well as bolstering them. However, while the three pillars are critical, a majority of the citizenry, the lifeblood of a democracy, remains unaware of how any or all of these pillars function. For instance, why did a Minister decide on a particular policy? Or how does the Supreme Court arrive at judgements in complicated cases which have consequences for the entire country?

The rise of the fourth pillar of democracy, media, has mitigated this asymmetry of information to a large extent. Freedom of press provides journalists unparalleled power to report on political, social and economic issues, events and policy decisions. The Right to Information Act has been another powerful tool to solve for information asymmetry, though the media operates at a much faster pace and caters to the masses. Social media has further democratized access to information and opinion.

But despite information asymmetry being significantly plugged, our country still suffers from poor delivery of schemes and services. If everybody now knows how the “system” works, shouldn’t that transparency automatically move people and systems to deliver results, results that are expected of any government?

This asymmetry in delivery stems from several systemic issues such as scale and complexity of the problem and the solution, frequent changes in bureaucratic leadership, low capacity of critical last-mile delivery staff (teachers, policemen, regional transport officer), the system’s proclivity towards maintaining status quo, and changing priorities of political leadership.

Over the last few decades, a fifth pillar of democracy has emerged that is trying to solve this asymmetry in delivery.

The fifth pillar of democracy

“Advisors”, “Officers on Special Duty”, “Chiefs of a Special Purpose Vehicle”, many such creative designations have been used to refer to those who make up the fifth pillar. Though practically within the system, formally, they remain outside it and work within the three pillars to improve delivery. They have been successful because of the advantages that come with walking the fine line between being insiders and outsiders. Working within the government structure, they get unfettered access to key stakeholders and information. Additionally, as agents of delivery they can singularly focus on their task and not deal with the day-to-day obligations, firefighting that bureaucrats have to manage.

These individuals have ushered in path-breaking innovations to transform governance. Sam Pitroda oversaw the growth and penetration of telecommunication in India. Aadhaar was conceptualized and implemented by Nandan Nilekani. Venkat Changavalli played a pivotal role in transforming Uttar Pradesh’s emergency response system through Dial 100.

But while the fifth pillar has the potential to bolster state capacity in a big way, it is currently constrained due to several reasons. In essence the pillar is a set of individuals who are either not connected to each other or working together. Second, this role offers limited or no opportunities for career progression. All the individuals named above had or were pursuing other careers which offered financial stability when they decided to engage with the governance system. Third, unlike the Executive, which recruits candidates through the UPSC exam or the Judiciary which relies on law schools, there has traditionally been no structured path for recruiting for the fifth pillar.

Things are, however, changing now.

Over the last few years, different mechanisms have emerged to facilitate collaboration between those who want work with the system without necessarily becoming a part of it and want to maximize impact as delivery agents.

Governance fellowships

Several fellowship programmes at the Centre and state level are providing a structured platform for young professionals to engage with the governance system across administrative levels. These include the Aspirational District Fellowship run by Transform Rural India Foundation, an initiative of Tata Trusts, in partnership with Ministry of Home, Zila Swacch Bharat Prerak Programme run by Tata Trusts in partnership with Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates run by the Government of Haryana, NITI Aayog’s Young Professionals, among others. During their tenure, these professionals engage with the governance machinery to support the delivery of various schemes, initiatives, and programmes of the government. This support is structured in different forms across these fellowships depending on the priorities, objectives and needs of the programme.

Governance consulting

In the last few years, firms such as Samagra and BCG’s social sector practice, have carved a niche for themselves within the private sector. Cutting across domains such as education, agriculture, health, skilling, employment, e-governance etc., these firms work with governments to provide a clear and structured approach to fundamentally transform governance and service delivery. For instance, BCG’s social sector practice has been at the forefront of education reforms in Rajasthan, Samagra has been working with the Governments of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh to systemically transform their education systems as well as the Government of Odisha to design and implement the state’s flagship KALIA scheme.

These firms are providing a structured a career path for professionals to work with the government in a sustainable manner. The fresh perspective and unique skill they bring to the table can help the Executive bridge gaps in service delivery.

In sum, the fifth pillar presents an unprecedented opportunity for citizens to actively participate in democracy by working with the system. In the coming years, its need and importance is only likely to increase.