Naidu revives an old debate

Updated: Jan 11 2002, 05:30am hrs
It was a favourite subject with our debating society at school. A quote from a leader of our freedom struggle, the proposition was that good government is no substitute for self government. This statement, we were taught, was made in response to a British claim at the time that they were providing India with good government and that chaos would follow the end of Empire on the sub-continent.

The imperial government had introduced the rule of law, modern education and health care, built roads, railways and telecommunications, pulled India out of centuries of intermittent conflict and brought modern industry and government to the natives. What are you complaining about The leaders of the freedom struggle were wasting their time trying to fight British rule, they would simply not be able to fill the vacuum created by its exit.

In response to this imperial claim Indias nationalist leaders said Quit India because even if the claim to good governance was conceded, there was indeed no superior substitute for self government. We want freedom and democracy because we want self government. Even thirty years ago at my school, students could offer convincing arguments both for and against the propositions. Things were better when the Brits ruled us was a line of argument of people who despaired at the sight of semi-literate politicians prospering from the perks of political power.

Given the historical background to this debate, it is indeed ironical that Indias first Centre for Good Governance has, in fact, been set up with financial assistance from the British! Britains Department for International Development has funded a project dear to the heart of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu: of creating an institution that will translate Mr Naidus desire to offer a SMART government a simple, moral, accountable, responsive and transparent government into practical ideas about institutional reform and modules for training government officials and public servants in the discharge of their duties.

Ironically again, the week the British Prime Minister Tony Blair inaugurated the Centre for Good Governance at Hyderabad, the citys intelligentsia was agonising about the wages of self government in the midst of an election campaign for the Hyderabad municipality in which many known criminals were contesting for positions on the city council!

The cancerous spread of corruption and its cynical acceptance as the grease that oils the governmental machinery has damaged systems of governance as much as red tape and bureaucratism have. Given this reality, Hyderabads CGG has set itself laudable objectives. Its work programme will comprise of the following six work streams: improving delivery of services to the citizens through simplifying government; improving human resource management with the public service; developing systems for accountability, including embedding performance indicators within management; making government more responsive to the citizen, focusing in particular on the poor, through greater decentralisation and development of participatory processes; increasing transparency, in particular through changes in financial management; and strategic reviews of departments to improve performance and to focus on core functions, and development of policy making capacity. The CGG also hopes to bring the fight against corruption in government directly on to its work agenda.

While Mr Naidu has quite correctly placed a lot of emphasis on e-governance, both as an instrument of efficiency and transparency in government, good governance is not just about technological upgradation of government offices. Hence, while Mr Naidus efforts at e-enabling his government are welcome, a campaign for good governance must transform the attitudes of people manning the state machinery.

This attitudinal change must come at all levels. What exactly should governments be doing What role should ministers and key officials play, what role should lesser functionaries play Who is the client and the stake-holder Has the tax payer any rights and do public servants have obligations These are all difficult questions to easily answer and it is easy to tie ourselves in knots asking more questions than seeking solutions.

Mr Naidus direct approach of asking the CGG to function as a change agent and help the political leadership deliver on its promises by making government SMART is a good enough starting point for the many experts who will step in to the portals of CGG to convert concept into reality. The most important aspect of the creation of the CGG is the explicit recognition of the fact that governance reform is long overdue. This is what we call third generation reforms the reform of government itself, of the public sector, of municipalities, of public utilities and services.

Good governance is not about getting government out of business that is just good economic policy and was the agenda of the so-called first and second generation reforms letting private enterprise do freely what it is best at doing and getting government out of this business. Third generation reform will have to be about making government work better and more honestly in arenas where government must do its work. Mr Naidu has helped move the agenda of reform forward by shifting focus to this inadequately explored territory of public policy. The meeting of chief ministers on governance reform convened by the Prime Minister should carry this message forward.

Unless governments do become SMART and are not just simple and moral but are truly accountable, responsive and transparent, the people of this country may well tire of self government and aspire for good government irrespective of who provides it. Fortunately, democracy has taken such deep roots in our country that this threat is no longer real, but if democracy turns into a kleptocracy of an elected and administrative elite, who would then care for the virtues of self government Indeed, must we be soliciting foreign aid to help us learn the art of good governance This sort of fiscal dependence is not a sign of good governance but of poor self government. More fodder for school debates.