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Walk the talk or perish

Among the first images I saw on television, even as the process of counting of votes began on the fateful 13th of May, was one of a prominent BJP leader exercising on a treadmill – a machine on which great effort is expended, and that creates the illusion of moving forward at a very fast pace, but in reality keeps you in feverish motion at the same spot. The symbolism was, in some sense, striking as a representation of much that the BJP had done over the preceding five years.

The BJP-led NDA has been bushwhacked at a time and place of its own choosing. The NDA has been routed, much to the uncomprehending amazement of its leadership, party cadres, pollsters, and even the unsuspecting winners. The crucial question at this critical moment in history is, will the parties – winners and losers – learn any worthwhile lessons from the drubbing the NDA has received, or will the winners return to cynical opportunism, and the losers to obstructive pettiness?

For those who are looking for the ‘causes’ of the debacle, one needs only to point to the widening areas that have fallen out of the sphere of governance across the country, as the state appeared to ‘wither away’, not only along India’s remote frontiers, but virtually everywhere outside the handful of urban concentrations where India was ‘shining’, and which seemed to exhaust the full focus of administrative attention. This could only have been worsened by the divisive and communal agenda that remained a prominent aspect of the activities of at least some segments of the ruling coalition. Over the past few months, the BJP had begun to speak of sadak-bijli-pani, but that was too little, too late. Had this been part of the NDA’s agenda over the past five hears, the ‘India shining’ campaign may have touched a sympathetic chord among a much larger population than was presently the case. But, with the state’s social security net virtually dismantled, the fears, and eventually the anger, of the poor and the marginalized transformed themselves into the most unexpected electoral verdict in India’s history.

There are, however, many elements that must temper the celebrations of the victors. For the Congress party, it is useful to recall that a ‘victory’ that brings it 145 seats is, indeed, a measure of the decline of the party’s national stature. The 154 seats it won in 1977 were, in fact, seen as an unprecedented and humiliating defeat. On the other hand, with 415 seats in 1984 – when Rajiv Gandhi rode to power on the largest electoral mandate in India’s history – the party had frittered away its entire bank of goodwill well before the regime had served a full term.

The truth is, the flush of electoral victory fades rapidly, if the fundamentals of governance are neglected – as they have been by most regimes in India’s recent history. Indira Gandhi won election after election on the roti-kapda-makaan slogan and the promise of poverty alleviation – but the aspirations of a very large mass of people for even these basics remain unfulfilled decades later. And aspirations have not remained stagnant: sadak-bijli-pani has, in fact, become part of basic public expectations – as have a wide range of other essential social services, including basic health and education, which remain outside the reach of millions, or where the quality of delivered services is worse than unacceptable. Above all these remains one element that no party has even begun to articulate – suraksha – the security of life and property that can, today, only be purchased at high cost by the rich and the privileged, and which is a near-forgotten dream in vast areas of political strife and criminal intimidation across the country.

If the new regime – and the largest single party within it, the Congress – is to be faithful to the mandate it has received, it would do well to remind itself of Rajiv Gandhi’s vision articulated at the Congress Centenary Conclave at Bombay in 1995 – a vision he himself failed to realize; and one that no subsequent regime has even sought to articulate, leave alone implement. It was there that he had pointed to "what might have been, but was not, because of weaknesses in government and in the party". Where he had indicted the "brokers of power and influence" and "self-perpetuating cliques" within the party that had transformed a great mass movement into "a feudal oligarchy". Where he denounced an administrative machinery that had become "cumbersome, archaic and alien to the needs and aspirations of the people." It was Rajiv Gandhi who had pointed out that, of each Rupee of Government spending on development, less than 15 Paise actually reached the people. All this, he had promised, would be transformed through a vast "Build India Movement", that would harness technology and growth to bring relief to the common man, even as it unshackled the spirit and natural dynamism of the nation.

Winning an election is one thing; fulfilling such a vision, quite another. The emphasis, now, must uniquely focus on hard issues of governance. Gimmicks, the ‘emotive issues’ that have often been used to manipulate the masses, may work for a time, but political entities that ignore the fundamentals of governance will be booted out unceremoniously, sooner rather than later. Regrettably, gimmicks still have overwhelming appeal, and among the first announcements by the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister elect was the promise of free electricity to farmers – a policy that bankrupted Punjab under the Akalis, and that the Congress party found necessary to reverse in that State. A policy, moreover, that did not, in fact, satisfy the farmers of Punjab, since it just meant longer power cuts, and only a token daily supply of ‘free’ electricity.

Anti-incumbency is, of course, every losing politician’s alibi. The fact is, anti-incumbency is nothing but a vote against bad- or non-governance in wide areas of necessary administrative responsibility.

Growth, globalisation and the march of technology cannot be neglected by the new regime, but in this sphere, all that the government really needs to do is get out of the way, and allow private enterprise the spaces it needs. It is useful to recall that, over the past decade, the most rapid growth has, in fact, been witnessed in sectors that were largely outside the sphere of oppressive government regulation, and this is what needs to be deepened, even as the government focuses more and more on the fundamentals of governance – providing security, infrastructure, and public services, including adequate social security, which are its primary mandates. Such a withdrawal of the government from the inessential will be vigorously resisted by an entrenched and substantially compromised bureaucracy. Reforms in the bureaucracy will, consequently, be fundamental to the success and failure of the new regime – as indeed, they have been for all past regimes, none of which eventually demonstrated the necessary will and courage for initiatives that they recognized as necessary and in the national interest. Reforming the bureaucracy will have to be prioritized above all else, because the success or failure of all other initiatives would be predicated on these. Downsizing of the bloated Indian bureaucracy is now an inescapable imperative, and well before India can be ‘modernized’, its bureaucracy must be. Regrettably, no political leader after Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab, appears to understand the art of getting the bureaucracy to move.

The essential lesson of the latest electoral verdict is not novel; it is, indeed, a dramatic re-rendering of the lesson of virtually all recent elections where negative votes rather than a positive show of confidence in a particular party have determined the outcome: the people don’t want opportunistic coalitions of the corrupt ruling them; they want viable, stable and competent governance. Everything else is a self-serving untruth.

(Published in The Pioneer, May 15, 2004)





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