A working government?

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 15 April 1998

Now that the country has a government, we need to ask ourselves the question: Are we going to get a government which will govern? Given that the elections were fought largely on the basis of politics related to casteism, communalism and regionalism, it is hard to imagine that all our wonderful political leaders will suddenly turn around to launch a politics of economic development, let alone sustainable development. Without any doubt, politicians will show some drive to push for economic growth in the months ahead, but whether they will show any drive to bring about a balance between this economic growth and equity and sustainability is a matter of extreme doubt.

Such a balance is only possible if our governance systems are in top shape. The country's governance systems are in a state of crisis. There appear to be key reasons for this. Political parties have never made any efforts to groom politicians with an interest and commitment to serious issues of economic and social development like education, public health, environment, poverty eradication, women's development or family planning. For Indian politicians, it is of greater importance to take charge of the police, the treasury, the embassies and the armed forces. Education, health, environment and other such issues are of secondary importance. In fact, for many of no importance at all.

Therefore, most politicians who come to manage these ministries come to them as totally ignorant of the challenges involved. Soon all of them begin to parrot the status quoism and defensiveness of the generalist administration they are supposed to lead to solve the problems of the people. While problems keep growing, the politicians fail to provide any leadership to solve these problems. There is no politician today, for instance, who has any interest in assuring full literacy, good environmental management or poverty eradication, let alone any knowledge of how to achieve these objectives. As a result, these problems continue to grow and compound all the time, even as the politicians remain full of rhetoric and verbiage.

The impact of this failure could have been contained if the country's bureaucratic system was able to meet the growing challenges before the country. But the bureaucracy is in an extremely sorry state to deal with the complex problems we are facing given the onslaught of population growth on one hand and economic growth on the other. The biggest shortcoming of the bureaucracy is its generalist character. Bureaucrats put in charge of challenging assignments first spend a lot of time trying to understand the intricate dimensions of the problem. Very few actually try to l earn and understand. Most just pick up the jargon and begin to behave as extremely literate and wise. But their shallowness ultimately begins to show up in the ineffectiveness and shoddiness of the measures they undertake. Three areas in which generalist administrations are particularly weak is the lack of an understanding of the scientific and technical dimensions of the issues they deal with, an inability to deal with these issues from a multidisciplinary perspective, and an inability to forecast ahead and take preventive action before the problem becomes a crisis. As a result, they deal with their incompetence by being arrogant, and by keeping everything close to their chest and being non-transparent. Ministerial incompetence then adds to this bureaucratic woodenness to produce a governance crisis. It is obvious that a complete overhaul of the bureaucratic system is required. There is no way that India can meet the challenges of the 21st century with a 19th century administrative system. But such an overhaul will never take place unless the political system begins to change itself and begins to realise that development is the key electoral issue.

Political leaders come to the governance system with only one agenda which is increasingly centered on one objective -- to loot the treasury. One is the unofficial loot of the treasury which is undertaken to line personal pockets . And the other is the official loot of this treasury which is done by doling out subsidies in order to earn cheap votes.Anything that the government touches becomes a mess -- from drinking water and electricity to public transport and pollution monitoring.

In money terms, the government does not usefully spend probably even 20 paise of every rupee it spends -- some 40-50 per cent is lost in corruption and another 40-50 per cent in incompetent, wasteful and ineffectual programmes.

Unfortunately, none of this is on Mr. Vajpayee's agenda or many of his numerous allies. So we can easily expect business as usual which effectively means that India's extremely mature electorate will throw them out whenever they come to an end of their terms -- five months or five years from now.

My biggest hope is that one day, some political leader will seize upon 'development' as the key political issue and focus upon it. And the public will in its maturity, vote that party back to power ending the repeated turnarounds of the last 15-20 years and sending a clear signal that it is interested in development and not casteism, communalism, regionalism or petty doles. India will then be poised for the big leap ahead.

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