Time We Re-invented Government

Updated: Nov 30 2003, 05:30am hrs
When this piece is published, the dust and din of the election campaign would have settled in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Delhi. Tomorrow (December 1) is the day of the poll. Mizoram went to the polls a few days ago.

Conventional wisdom says that anti-incumbency should be a powerful factor in an election. In recent times, only a handful of chief ministers have bucked the trend and got re-elected. It appears that two more Sheila Dikshit and Ashok Gehlot are poised to join this small but distinguished company.

Conventional wisdom also says that the voters prefer good and clean leaders to wily and controversial netas. Going by the pre-election surveys, a good and clean leader like Digvijay Singh is likely to lose, while a wily and controversial neta like Ajit Jogi is likely to win.

Is conventional wisdom standing on its head

No generalisations are possible on what the people want from their governments. By and large, the people are able to make a distinction between public goods like water, roads, electricity, medical care etc on the one hand and the indicators of growth like price stability, employment, investment etc on the other. People want both, but they seem inclined to reward those who deliver the public goods and punish those who dont. They also seem inclined to accept the excuses of our governments for not being able to promote growth, so long as some public goods are made available to them.

This attitude will surprise economists. In any event, it should be a cause of worry to those who believe in good governance. A partial explanation may lie in the argument that people have become so cynical of our political parties and governments that they no longer demand good governance and are content with meagre measures that bring some relief to the rigours of a harsh everyday existence. So we have Mr Gehlot constructing a winning platform on the success of his government in fighting the worst drought in many years. And we have Ms Dikshit riding the Metro and CNG buses to victory. Both, undoubtedly, have more achievements to their credit, but I am simply reminding you of the ones that have been show-cased during the election campaign.

At the other end, battling for his political survival is Digvijay Singh. During the past 10 years, he has invested greatly in good governance.

Nobody has accused him of corruption or moral turpitude or highhandedness. He is accessible and friendly. He maintains cordial relationships with the Opposition. He has the best record in implementing the Panchayati Raj, decentralisation and empowerment. More than any other state, Madhya Pradesh has moved up rapidly in the human development index. Yet, on the polling day, what is likely to be decisive is that people do not have electricity or good roads.

In Chhattisgarh, Mr Jogi is also fighting for his political survival but he is fighting a different kind of battle. In the space of two years, his government appears to have delivered on electricity and roads. On the investment front too, Mr Jogis government can claim significant successes. However, his style of governance is in sharp contrast to his MP counterpart Mr Jogi breaks Opposition parties, wins over Opposition leaders, distributes school bags with his image embossed on them, gets arrested in a demonstration before the Prime Ministers house and thrives on controversies!

Between the two, according to pre-election surveys, Mr Jogi has a better chance of leading his party to victory. The more important point is that, according to pre-poll surveys, Ms Dikshit and Mr Gehlot, the less political chief ministers, will register decisive victories and will outperform the more politically savvy Mr Singh and Mr Jogi.

There is yet another intriguing feature of the current election campaign. It is the high degree of acceptability enjoyed by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. In state after state, he enjoys a higher rating than his party, the BJP. What is more intriguing is that Mr Vajpayee enjoys greater acceptability than Congress president Sonia Gandhi even in the states where her party is winning. If these indicators are indeed political trends, they hold valuable lessons for all political parties and leaders: It pays to be avuncular than authoritative (LK Advani)! And it is better to be detached than determined and to recite poetry than read out a chargesheet against the government (Ms Gandhi)! If these are confirmed as political trends, then it will support my conclusion that the people have become so cynical of politics that they demand very little in return for their votes.

It is sad that 56 years after Independence, the demands of the people are still centred around basic needs like water, electricity and roads. By my estimate, as many as around 500 million people in the country are denied these basic requirements. The bulk of these 500 million people live in villages, although a significant number live in city-slums. On the election day, what appears to matter to them is the continued denial of these basic needs, and they vote with a mixture of anger and disappointment. If these are the issues that determine the fate of governments, then we are still in a primitive stage of development.

Hence, my plea for re-inventing the system of government. Water, roads, electricity and sanitation are basic to any civilised society. Public or governmental institutions, as we know them, have failed to deliver these public goods. In the case of electricity, it is possible to hand it over entirely to the private sector, subject only to a regulatory mechanism. But how do we provide water or sanitation or rural roads The record shows that small states have done better than their larger sisters in delivering these goods eg. Goa, Punjab and Haryana. Should we then move towards smaller states If we cannot have smaller states, we could have smaller, and viable, units of administration that are charged with the sole responsibility of delivering these public goods. A mandal or a panchayat samiti is too small for these purposes. A district as the unit seems more viable and governable. Today, at the district level, the entire administration is in the hands of bureaucrats. It is time to ponder over an alternative model fully elected district administrations, responsible for the delivery of selected public goods and answerable to a district level assembly of elected representatives. The result is that there will be 5,000 units of administrations, but the people may also get water, roads and sanitation.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)