Friday Aug 28

A panacea for governance ills

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Indian crowd

National fury on inadequate governance in India has been exploding for the past few years. The seeds sown by the Public Interest Litigation and the Right to Information Act and the onslaught of media, especially social media, social activists and activist courts along with a demanding public have been baying for accountability that Indian top leadership better pay heed to.

The outcry is legitimate. The costs of poor policy making, its distortion in implementation have been colossal. The absolute callousness exhibited towards the have-nots, about 400 million in our country, should stir the conscience of any collective especially in a land where we espouse human sensitivity, tolerance, spiritualism and principled existence.

The government and political leadership cannot get away from the message given in Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Assam or the recent by-polls that the electorate will demand all-inclusive governance. The electronic ballot system has ensured that the true voice of the electorate cannot be overlooked any more. The aam aadmi while getting the wrong end of the stick is emerging an extremely potent electoral weapon. And the 'nuisance value' of the PIL, RTI, and renewed activism will not let that go. This is also an opportunity since there are non-Congress-ruled states which suffer from governance deficit and states like Uttar Pradesh present an opportunity to get state-level leadership and through its spillover effect also strengthen numbers at the Centre.

It is the TINA (there is no alternative) factor that can perhaps make the Congress scrape through the next general elections. However, if it or any other party for that manner has to get out of the coalition logjam and not keep horse-trading the country's welfare for partisan interests, it better perform.

The nation demands extraordinary leadership, needed to consolidate the momentum generated by the economic liberalisation unleashed in 1991 by Narasimha Rao, Man Mohan Singh and other competent set of ministers and bureaucrats. There are, however certain 'reality checks' that need to be adhered to before we move further and start hoping for Ramrajya and Praja sukhi chimera.

India suffers from governance logjam with respect to both policymaking and its interpretation. The Lokpal was suggested by the Administrative Reforms Commission way back in 1966. Many of our laws are more than century-old. The policy deficit has got exaggerated by the heightened demands for a buoyant economy. This needed unprecedented speed and quality of response especially since there were huge financial stakes that this growth has entailed for the affected parties .The enormity of these stakes is illustrated by the example that the entire government annual financial input into its welfare schemes are equal to the income tax demand on Hassan Ali. Today, the Bofors scam figure (Rs 64 crore) looks like a child's play. There is little merit in blaming a 'class' of people who have abused power. It is more an issue of our national ethos where chalega and jugaad are inoculated in our culture and thought process.

One is reminded of Animal Farm by George Orwell which depicted the change in colours/characters of the powerless when they became powerful. The corporate sector has gone relatively scot-free. They have readily blamed the policymakers and glossed over their misdeeds through excellent PR. Satyam provided the first blow to this 'holier than thou' approach and the same has been progressively tarnished with the Radia tapes and other similar explosive revelations. Indeed, there is a subtle shift in lexicon from neta babu to neta- babu- corporate raj, or crony capitalism.

Policymaking for the country cannot and should not be rushed. Its complexity can be illustrated by the telecom policy where, despite heavyweight monitors in the department of telecom and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the ramifications of policy initiatives were not comprehended and distortions occurred in the commercial fabric of the industry. Today, the consumer has got the unwarranted service of having the cheapest services in the world, the penetration was perhaps not really needed, the industry is close to being financially sick and the government also lost out by misallocating spectrum.

'Inclusive growth' is a tough model to pursue and development models followed by countries have often turned a blind eye to distribution and either hoped /planned for trickledown effect on uplifting the down trodden or abandoned it altogether. Russia's progress during the time of Peter the Great, contemporary China, or on the reverse the economic pangs of 'welfare states' in Europe show how difficult the trade–offs can be.

How does the government improve its scorecard, ensure its survival and not get beholden to coalition politics? It is suggested that the in the final run-up for the next general elections, the Centre should focus on few high impact–high visibility initiatives and move with boldness and confidence and positivism . These initiatives would be reinforcing each other and thereby have high multiplier effects on welfare of the populace especially the aam aadmi.

Judicial reforms

While judicial activism is a welcome step, especially since the executive has not been able to perform; its primary role is legal interpretation and dispute settlement. The colossal delays in delivering justice provide an incentive for the venal to take advantage of the courts. '' Justice delayed is justice denied" is an adage that applies to India like few other economies in the world. Even in the case of 2G scam, it is not appropriate to keep people in jail for months together and not be able to bring the trial to a logical conclusion. The creeping evidence of graft in the judiciary is a worrisome trend. The Judicial (Standards and Accountability) bill , which is being pushed is partly a result of judicial over reach, but also addresses the ills of the judicial system especially lack of accountability under the self contained Collegium system which is unique in the world.

For instance, the tackling of corruption --- all high-profile cases of misdemeanour have been brought to light by the media/RTI --- not one suo moto by the internal departments, Anti Corruption Bureau and, to make matters worse, the conviction rates have been abysmal. India ranks 95th in Transparency International and has only recently signed the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Graft serves nobody's interest other than those of a certain percentage and small number of beneficiaries. Cleaning up of election laws and expenses would be a starting point.

The Lokpal could be a good institution, the prime minister and the party president should seize the opportunity, snuff out any internal dissent and provide all the administrative support to make it deliver the goods. The prime minister's statement that he does not have a magic wand to tackle corruption is apt, but neither does it give right to continued and increasing depravity amongst our political and bureaucratic class. The regulation of lobbying --- different models is being practiced in advanced countries and the Ministry Of Corporate Affairs can very push and implement this system. This will include the private sector to RTI scrutiny and ensure transparency.

Kudos for government

There are enough bright and institution-building officers who are languishing due to lack of political savvy and inability to 'look the other way'. These are the unsung heroes who are being subjected to frequent transfers, victimising through the dreaded ACR route and in some states even humiliiated. They are a resource that does sometimes not seek top-of-the-heap rewards and high- profile positions, but just an opportunity to do their job .Such officers should be showcased and rewarded and it can be done only if the key positions are never given to officers with doubtful integrity/incompetence. A similar role should be given to politicians. The prime minister should personally ensure that horse trading should not let the basic tenets of integrity and competence fall on the way especially in key ministries. A quick redressal to criminalisation in politics is needed. It is shameful that 40% of our Central legislators across party lines have criminal cases against them. And parties take the refuge under innocent till proven guilty. If moral courage is not possible, then fast courts could be instituted to settle these cases.

Zero tolerance approach to terrorism

The competence of our post-incident investigation should be translated into the preventive end and intelligence systems should be buttressed substantially. A callous attitude which sometimes slips out of our leaders' statements even when our financial capital is ravaged is not acceptable. We should take inspiration from USA, or even states like the UAE to understand what world class systems are about and replicate them with speed these seven steps , will certainly need a courageous stance since it will affect vested interests . However it will be well worth for the prime minister and his trusted aides to pursue them, since it will deliver a visible scorecard in the short run and also set the base for the other corrections needed to ensure balanced growth and welfare of the 40 million at the 'bottom end of the pyramid' who deserve to partake in the country's progress.

Arvind Kumar has been a practicing corporate manager who has run units of Indian and Foreign companies in India and abroad as part of his 30 years of corporate career. An alumnus of St Stephen's college and Indian Institute of Management, public policy and governance are an area of special interest to him. 

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