Book Review: Through the Looking Glass
‘Through the Looking Glass’ is a ringside account of Akhilesh Tilotia’s three year journey working with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India and it tells India’s growth story from the perspective of society and state. Akhilesh worked with the corporate sector before he was invited by Jayant Sinha, Minister of State in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to work with him as an Officer on Special Duty. His debut book ‘The Making of India’ where he talked about the concept of ‘private cost of public failure’ prompted Jayant Sinha to reach out to him and opened up this opportunity.
‘Through the Looking Glass’ is an excellent read for students and practitioners of public policy in India who want to understand this mammoth we know as ‘Government of India’. It talks about the stake-holders and the opportunities available within the system, cites its limitations and makes suggestions to improve it. Having worked with Akhilesh myself, I have seen first hand his methodical and data backed approach towards any problem. This is visible in abundance in the book with interesting anecdotes and comparative data. In the chapter on ‘An Encounter with the System’ the comparison between Infosys, a corporate giant and the State Government of Jharkhand is revealing and provides an engaging point of view.
Akhilesh points towards nine key areas viz. ‘bijli, sadak, pani, roti, kapda, makaan, shiksha, suraksha and swasthya’ and uses these as examples where society and state meet. Instead of being prescriptive of what the state or society should do, he provides gaps in the planning approach which is currently process driven instead of being driven by outcomes. ‘The system is designed with processes, permissions and positions in mind…it has to be designed around people, performance and progress.’ Economic Survey 2020–21 has shared the concept of ‘Bare Necessities Index’ where it talks of quantifying 26 basic necessities.
A continuing theme of the book is ‘apna uthan, apne haath’ where the author asks the end user, the citizen, to become proactive in their engagement with the state. The chapter on ‘Ladder of Development’ brings in a fascinating way of looking at opportunities as probabilities and can help policy planners with scenario prediction and planning. The account of a politician as an agent of change is humbling and explains the tussles they go through on a daily basis. I found the chapter on the bureaucrat as an agent of change very insightful. Akhilesh writes, ‘Bureaucracy, like some of the rules it spawns, is vast and complex’ and suggests the only way to get an outcome from the system is ‘follow-up’.
‘Officer on Special Duty (OSD)’ is both an interesting and cryptic job title. So, when someone with this job description writes a book on their experience, one expects to get clarity on aspects like what it means being an OSD, the procedure to become an OSD and similar intriguing questions. ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is about none of this and devoid of any juicy inside account of government functioning. In one of the few instances where the author has shared personal anecdotes in the book, Akhilesh writes how his predecessor and he looked at the OSD job title differently. His former colleague defined it as ‘Oppressed, Suppressed and Depressed’ while he saw it as ‘Opportunity for Systematic Disruption’. While there is no one or right definition of an OSD’s work, the book gives a reasonable amount of exposure about what to expect if one gets into such a role. The book would have been richer had there been more case studies and anecdotes as it would have made the reading more relatable but ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is a one of its kind book and an important contribution to the domain of public administration in India.