This is the second week of what is increasingly described as the Narendra Modi era. What is unique about this beginning? I do not mean only the somewhat unconventional oath-taking ceremony, which was a robust foreign policy statement designed as much to assert India’s significant presence in the Saarc circumference as to allay subsisting misgivings that Modi lacked a global vision. Whatever be the outcome of his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and irrespective of whether or not it will bring a paradigm shift in relation to the many failed attempts, both formal and informal, to improve relations with Pakistan it does suggest on our part a mindset change on diplomatic engagement not hedged by inflexible pre-conditions. However, beyond all this it is unique for the following reasons.
First, after a long time a political party elected through a democratic process has a majority on its own. This means governance would not be a balancing act between the largest political party, its allies, coalition partners lending inside or outside support or issue-based support. People have realised that a fractured mandate enables the government in office to escape responsibility and accountability, citing the limitations of the fractured polity. India and its institutions, long used to operating in a coalition framework, will have to recalibrate the way they work.
Second, what are the consequences of a serving chief minister becoming prime minister? One obvious outcome is the new emphasis on federal autonomy. Modi in several of his speeches has mentioned the need to strengthen the federal nature of our polity. The growing incongruity in Centre-state relations has raised serious questions on the working of our federal polity. Broadly speaking, these concerns relate to three aspects — first, devolution of resources, its manner and methodology; second, consultative mechanisms for policy decisions that impinge on the states; and, third, greater fiscal and legislative flexibility to ensure correspondence between the resources and responsibilities of states.
Third, in post-Independence India the Congress, except for a temporary period, has suffered from the hangover of Fabian socialism. This implies an innate distrust of private enterprise and complacency that the government or the public sector was capable of bringing about improved life quality and rapid growth, and addressing our complex and diverse needs. Just when this belief was being laid to rest between 1991 and 1996, it reinvented itself during UPA 1 and UPA 2 in multiple forms, notably the obligations arising from an entitlement-driven welfarism like MGNREGA, the Right to Food, the Right to Education, to mention a few. The BJP, notwithstanding its ideological position on Swadeshi, has sought to recalibrate its economic ideas with contemporary economic and political challenges. It does not seek to forestall productivity- and efficiency-enhancing measures through increased competition, which can improve outcomes. The BJP has evolved and Modi-nomics (a term now in increasing currency) is unlikely to suffer from any excessive hangover from the vestiges of a Congress-type Fabian socialism. There is thus a unique opportunity to reinvent government and governance.
Fourth, the 12th Five-Year Plan, meaning over 65 years of planned economic development, has rested on the belief that the state sector with modifications can guarantee tolerable levels of efficiency in the public delivery systems. Further, that a large number of anti-poverty schemes, centrally sponsored schemes, entitlement-driven welfarism can be largely implemented through the State apparatus, notwithstanding huge corruption, leakages and inefficiency. The last thing the BJP believes in is the infallibility of the market, laissez-faire capitalism, crony capitalism or markets seeking to play god. Nonetheless, moving from excessive statism and a willingness to consider whether the variations in modalities can secure improved outcomes from public programmes provide an enormous opportunity of experimenting with altered modes of governance.
So the first and foremost reform, which is central to all changes, is reform in governance itself. Basically to reinvent government and more importantly interface between the government and the people. A huge public dissatisfaction even during the election campaign was as much about what was not done as about how badly it was done. This was so whether in terms of allocation of national resources, land, mines, spectrum or implementation of scores of government projects. The exceedingly poor quality of implementation had led to a lot of resentment and frustration. So what are the ways in which government can be reinvented?
nTo consider the limits of government’s obligations and responsibilities. What are the things that the government need not do and over time has been doing badly? This means a systemic examination of determining the limits of State intervention and altering the modalities even in respect to interventions, which are laudable and seeking other ways of securing desired objectives.
nTo reconsider the modalities and principles of decision-making — the multiple levels of decision-making and tendency of a file system where the file notings are efforts to create audit-trails justifying the bona fide nature of the proposed decision. Countries all over the world, without compromising on transparency in decision-making, use modern technology, which has transformed the traditional file system of decision-making. Consensual decision-making may make individual accountability more difficult but would certainly accelerate outcomes. The government’s processes and procedures need to be re-jigged. Besides, without lowering our guard on rectitude, the multiplicity of scrutiny by independent entities often stymies even bona fide decisions. No system can be optimal or efficient if based on inherent distrust. We have one of the most aggressive Right to Information (RTI) Acts, compelling public accountability. The investigative agencies have to function with autonomy but we need to consider many debilitating functions of, say, the Prevention of Corruption Act, particularly a provision that makes public officials culpable for unintended gains or losses even without any pecuniary gains. In our understandable and justifiable quest for transparency, could we have tilted the balance, leading to a paralysis in decision-making by public officials?
nFinally, can we revive the moribund forums and institutions like the National Development Council by giving it a statutory basis, make the inter-state council more meaningful, reinvent the Planning Commission to make the federal states genuine partners in our development?
None of these lend themselves to any magic quick fix. The Modi era will have served India well if it reinvents government and governance. This means both its style and content. Redefining people-government relationship would fortify trust, sustain hope and fulfil important expectations.
NK Singh is a member of the BJP and a former Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal