No Incentive, No Action



President Ram Baran Yadav is an honorable man. He has conducted himself in office responsibly and prevented democracy from being derailed in these politically fraught times. I admire him. At the same time, I view him as just another mortal, with the attendant strengths and weaknesses, who needs an incentive to take a risk. Not as superhuman. 

The country needs to be rescued from one of the worst constitutional crises in its history. The Constituent Assembly dissolved without giving a new constitution. A caretaker government has been running the country since May 2012. The Interim Constitution has no provision for another election. Opposition parties have refused to amend the constitution until a consensus government is formed. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has shown no inclination to quit and clear the deck for such government. In this situation, only the President can resolve the crisis but he has no incentive to take a risk to do so. 


Well, the President, as the custodian of the constitution, has done everything that is relatively risk-free. He has egged political leaders to resolve the crisis and given them several timelines for the same purpose. He has also made all the right noises about it. But the leaders have failed to agree, and the President has been reluctant to go further. Out of frustration, the opposition parties have launched anti-government protests. The ruling Maoist-Madheshi coalition flexed its muscle in a recent rally to intimidate them and to deter the President from taking a risky road. 

I do not know what President Yadav is thinking. But theories of motivation help us understand what could be on his mind and what he might or might not do next. Let us look at four such theories of motivation. 

To start with, Abraham Maslow says physiological, security, belonging, esteem and self-actualization needs drive human beings. Clark Hull’s Drive Theory suggests that a physiological need, not an instinct, instigates someone to act in order to offset the need. John Atkinson’s Achievement Theory maintains that three conditions should be met for action: The need or motive for success, probability of success, and incentive for success. Kurt Lewin’s Theory of Motivations maintains that tension (the magnitude of need), valence (the possibility of fulfilling the need), and distance of the desired object to fulfill the need motivate people to act.

President Yadav’s first four needs (Maslow) have already been fulfilled. He has food, clothes and shelter; he enjoys reasonable security as head of state; he has loving family, community and political colleagues for the sense of belonging; and he has self-esteem as the President. Though his self-actualization needs must also have been met to a degree when he became a minister and subsequently first President of the republic, there is no end to human ambition. It is only rational if he wishes to have another term as President under a new constitution. 

Obviously, President Yadav’s physiological need for survival and security (Clark) has already been met. The President might have an instinctive desire to secure another term. Instinct, however, is not strong enough to propel anyone into action, if Clark is correct. As the custodian of the constitution, the President does have the need for success (Atkinson) and tension (Lewin) to restore constitutional order. But the probability of success (Atkinson) is uncertain and valence (Lewin) is not very high, for the President’s action could prove an albatross around his neck if the ruling coalition does not cooperate. 

Most important, the President does not have the incentive for success (Atkinson). His success in resolving the crisis will only shorten his term. And the desired object (Lewin) is quite far: A consensus government will have to be formed, the Interim Constitution will have to be amended, and peaceful elections held. It is not a sprint; it is a marathon. 

Essentially, these theories of motivation suggest that you must have a compelling incentive—fear or reward—to take risks. Fear motivates you to act to avoid the potential and extant threat of physiological and psychological deprivation and discomfort and of legal and social sanctions. Reward motivates people to do things that put them in a more comfortable or desirable situation, or that prevent the situation from deteriorating further, at the least. 

If the opposition parties really want the President to boot out the Bhattarai government, as they have demanded, they must create either a fear-driven or a reward-driven incentive for him. The ruling coalition has already threatened the President with dire consequences if he took the activist road, to generate a fear-driven incentive for him to avoid it. To trump it, the opposition parties will have to create a stronger incentive.

To create a fear-driven incentive for the President, the opposition parties could do several things. They can bring a tsunami of protests in the street. They can submit hundreds of thousands of signatures from the public asking the President to act. They can appeal to him to ask Prime Minister Bhattarai to prove that he still has the support of the majority members of the dissolved Constituent Assembly. Or they can take the President to court for failing in his duty to protect the Interim Constitution. 
Alternatively, the opposition parties can, if they so want, generate a reward-driven incentive for the President to remove Prime Minister Bhattarai and open the door for a consensus government that will take the much-needed initiative to amend the Interim Constitution and hold the general election. For this, they will have to promise him that he would be their candidate in the next presidential election. The ruling coalition will certainly not support him. 

However, there is no guarantee that the President will resort to activism despite the pledge of support for next term. The fear of enraging the ruling coalition might trump the potential reward of another term in office. But the pledge will certainly make presidential action significantly more attractive and worth taking a risk.

In the absence of such an incentive, the President is unlikely to take the risk of removing Bhattarai. Actually, removing Bhattarai might bring elections nearer and shorten the President’s tenure. The status quo prolongs his own tenure. In this situation, any normal human being would rather let the crisis continue to prolong his current tenure, rather than take a risk without a potential reward in sight. 

What about the President’s moral obligation to act? It sounds good in stories and films, not in real life. In real life, we humans are wired to act in our self-interest. There has to be a proper alignment between personal reward and moral obligation for people to take risks and tenaciously pull them off. Arguably, nothing in this world is self-less. Even a charitable contributionor saving lives is not. You became charitable to do your job, reduce your taxes, boost your ego, or give yourself the satisfaction that you have helped others. You might even be investing in a better next life through such humanitarian deeds. 

No one, therefore, is a self-less messiah in the world. So politicians, who have made a mess of the country pursuing their parochial, selfish interest, should not entertain the false expectation that President Yadav will jeopardize his image and reputation to clean up the dirt they have created without any incentive. He, or anyone else in his shoes, would make all populist noises and gestures for public consumption but shun anything that could truncate his own term without the promise of a better reward in the future. 

In fairness, let President Rambaran Yadav be, and act as, a rational human being, not superhuman

 Published in Republica


Published on 2013-02-10 01:15:35