Each general election in India, millions of impoverished women and men patiently join long queues outside polling booths across the land, affirming faith again and again in a state that repeatedly fails them.
Half our children are still malnourished, millions of them sleep hungry, and multitudes labour instead of enjoying a carefree childhood in playfields and classrooms. Work for millions is insecure and underpaid. Women, dalits, minorities, and disabled people, live with violence, discrimination and deprivation as a way of life.
Tribal communities are savagely dispossessed from their forests and lands. Illness for large numbers is a catastrophe, because they cannot afford a dominantly privatised health care system.
Old age is a burden because most have no pensions to fall back on. And the pavements and slums of cities are choked with people who cannot afford decent housing.
Since Independence until the turn of the 20th century, at least the theory of government was that its primary responsibility was to ensure a better life for disadvantaged people, although its practice frequently deviated from this goal. Today, this vision of a good government has been abandoned.
In its place, governance is evaluated mainly by the yardstick of its success in facilitating private, formal, globalised markets. Its single bottom line is economic growth, not the nourishment of its children, the health and education of its populations, decent work for all, and dignity and security of its people.
India’s first governance challenge is to reclaim the idea that government’s primary duty is to ensure dignity, security and well-being of all people.
The state should be held responsible to ensure a floor of human dignity below which no one should be allowed to fall. No child should sleep hungry, or go to work instead of school. None should die because they cannot afford health care, and all women should receive maternity benefits.
People should be assured work with fair wages and decent conditions, and universal pensions for all when they age. Agricultural land should be fairly distributed, farmers supported, and cities re-imagined to include spaces for their poor populations to work, vend and live.
For these to happen, universal legal rights to education, food, health care, decent work and social security, are imperative, but not enough. These need to be combined with greatly enhanced capacity of governments to perform their duties. Schools should run, and provide high quality education to all children.
Public hospitals should be adequately staffed and equipped, with assured supplies of free generic medicines for all persons who access these. Ration shops should ensure that cheap food reaches all households to stave off hunger.
Governments should be accountable to implement employment and social protection schemes, land reform and anti-discrimination laws, and to protect all vulnerable populations. And for all these, public systems of delivery and regulation must be cleansed of corruption.
This is partly a matter of much higher public investments in the social sectors, and the training of government staff; and partly systemic reforms to reduce discretion, and increase transparency. But these in themselves will not ensure humane, just and effective government.
In the end, what is most critical is that people should be able to exercise power over the levers of government, to pressurise it to work with probity, in reliable ways, in public interest.
In other words, that government works best for people which people can control. This partly requires government to be effectively decentralised: local governments should have the finances and the mandate to meet most needs and rights of the people. It is easier for me to argue with my local panchayat representative or municipal councillor than a minister in the capital.
But India is notoriously stratified and unequal and even local governments can be extremely oppressive and corrupt. People will get compassionate and fair government, when they demand it and fight for it.
In the final account, disadvantaged people — women, youth, workers, dalits, tribal people, minorities, disabled people and the aged — can secure good government only if they organise themselves, through non-violent assertion, resistance, and public vigilance.
Therefore India’s formidable governance challenges require, above all, the defence and the deepening of spaces for public social dissent. And by reclaiming Gandhi’s talisman: the idea that the best government is one that is closest to its weakest citizen.
Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies.