Through the Looking Glass – A Book Review

I have never reviewed a book on my website, so this is a first.

Recently, I read Akhilesh Tilotia’s Through the Looking Glass. Tilotia is a management graduate who has worked both in the private sector and in the government. He was an officer on special duty to the minister of state for civil aviation, Jayant Sinha, for a period of three years, in the first term of the Narendra Modi government. (On a separate note, an apology to the Lewis Carrol fans who might have been conned into clicking on this link).

In this book, Tilotia offers a clear perspective on what it is like to work for the government as an outsider, why the government does not achieve what it normally sets out to do and what can be done about it.

There are two things I immensely liked about the book. First that it is written in simple English, something that many people who write on public policy and economics cannot seem to do, and second that Tilotia tackles the very tricky issue of how politics impacts public policy in India or why the government operates the way it does.

Running for an election, even at the corporator level, is very expensive. It needs a lot of money. To fight a Member of Parliament election, the expenditure allowed is up to Rs 70 lakh. And on paper that’s what the candidates spend. Of course, the real spending is much more. The question is where does this money comes from.

As Tilotia writes:

“The sources of funds are rarely disclosed or discussed in detail. Local, regional, national or even global entities may have an interest in a particular candidate or a party winning or losing. Who the candidate may be beholden to for his election is not obvious at the time of, or post the election.”

This works at both the state level and the national level. State level politics in India tends to be funded by builders in many cases. Hence, there is always a quid pro quo.

There is a very limited culture of making political donations in India. Corporates don’t like the idea of their employees being politically active. And those who are politically active, either need to hide their affiliation or face its consequences.

In this scenario, the politician is perpetually worried and unsure about where the money to fight the next elections is going to come from. As Tilotia writes: “The politician is ever on the look-out for funding commitments over the course of his political journey, whether as challenger, candidate or elected representative.”

Clearly, the incentives here are misaligned, and politicians, like other human beings, respond to incentives and don’t do the things they should be doing. If this problem can be solved, then politicians in India will be in a much better place to focus on the future than the political funding, Tilotia believes.

Due to this, what we call the system fails to deliver, leading to people who can opt out of the system, doing so at the first possible opportunity. This exit is visible in people cocooning themselves in gated communities, making sure that there are diesel generators which ensure the availability of electricity even when there is a power cut, sending their kids to private schools, buying vehicles to move around because the public transport is not up to the mark and so on.

Tilotia calls this the private cost of India’s public failure. And it just doesn’t lead to exits. It is detrimental on two other counts. First, as Tilotia writes: “The cost being high forces the spending of a large part of India’s wallet on basic necessities keeping Indians tethered on a low quality of life.” And second “public failure hits the poor and the vulnerable the hardest.”

The private cost of public failure has clearly been visible in the last 15 months as the Covid pandemic has spread. The out of pocket health expenses for many families who have had to spend money on treating the disease have gone through the roof.

This is primarily because the health system in many parts of the country is broken and/or virtually non-existent. Of course, this has led to a slowdown in economic activity, given that many families have run out of money, some others have ended up in debt and others having seen what has happened around them, are saving for future Covid waves. In this way, the private cost of India’s public failure, has turned into a public one.

Tilotia’s book is also an excellent ready reckoner for those looking to work for the government in mid to senior level positions and hoping to get some taste of how it is likely to be.

On the flip side, the book barely has any masala in it, though I found the callout feature of comparing the state of Jharkhand with Infosys, very interesting. And so was the small bit about the uncanny resemblance about the accounts of the state of Himachal Pradesh and Air India.

In that sense, the book is not something like Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister.  Personally, I understand why the writer stuck to saying what he wanted to say in a straightforward accessible manner, but some masala would just have made a good book even better. For starters, Tilotia could have told us about how good the food in the Parliament’s canteen is. Are we really missing out on something?