Governance norms vs political survival

Too many compromises with the legitimate political and governance norms have slowed down much of the effective delivery of social benefits to the farmers and the poor.

This political commentary, readers might know, is posted on the weblog and so what I write mostly ,more so on the international issues don’t get printed in this column! So, I have the difficulty to balance what gets written and what finally gets printed. So, readers should read what is in print keeping in mind what is also posted on the web.
Indian democracy is doing well in my opinion when we see what is happening in other developed democracies or in other big countries like Russia and China. In the USA the President is always powerful and he cant be voted out easily as can be done in our country, more so in a coalition government. Nor the UK model is helpful to India now. In UK the Prime Minister even under Tony Blair is highly conditioned by long Parliamentary traditions and however much one individual like Blair can distort governance he cant do much to damage the system. In China there is so much of suppression of the people. Just now I read in the Financial Times, London( Sept 10/11 2005) that in rural China there is wide protests over the neglect of the Beijing government. Zhou Youngkang, the public security minister (like our Home Minister) says that recently the annual number of “mass incidents” had risen, involving some 3.6 million people. I have before me the detailed report and I can say that China is changing, not only economically with its fast growth but also politically. There is something like an internet boom, with its 100m registered users the protestors have resorted to “the peaceful and rational stance held by the (Chinese) villagers signals the resurgence of Gandhi’s non-violence method among China’s grassroots’ activists”. This message is posted on the web and so there is widespread unrest in rural China. In India? Indians are lucky to have their democracy and whatever the faults of our leaders, we Indians are more given to silent suffering. Manmohan Singh is really a lucky man. He had a smooth sailing so far, also in his entire career. In India we don’t take moral pangs seriously too. We change from bureaucrat to politican and reverse too. So, when the Supreme Court observed there seems no distinction between the Chief Minister and a Governor, we should ask : what is the message for our democracy ,our governance norms?

Too much talk of rate of economic growth. Too little concentration on innovative governance at the grass roots. This shows dramatically in the UN HDI Report 2005, that compares Bangladesh’s far superior performance compared with India’s.

These days, increasingly, the sort of news that makes it to the front page headlines, be it the quality newspaper or others is not what the Prime Minister does nor what Sonia Gandhi is doing. They are nowhere in the news when it comes to Bihar elections for instance and it is only the more aggressive and more ambitious regional politicians are calling the shots. Nor when it comes to attending to tackling the serious issues like farmers suicides or widespread malnutrition in the countryside, as revealed by the persisting problem in Maharashtra’s Vidarba region. In China too the rural China presents formidable challenges to president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao who came to office in 2003. Two thirds of China’s 800m live on tiny family farms in small towns. The two leaders did some radical things. They cut farmers taxes, a tax system started “2000 years ago”. Rural China “remains at the level of 100 years ago”. Who has said that Indian villagers average lives remain also as what obtained some 100 years ago? We, Indians don’t talk about rural India anymore, as we also are afraid for one reason or other about China’s real problems ,real achievements. But there are two factors with foreign leader who receive China’s and Indian leaders. George Bush, from what he says, seem to realise that China ,in a way India too, are emerging superpowers of sorts! Also there is some “anguish” in Washington and Europe about the threats posed by China’s faster exports and also about Indian IT’s challenge in outsourcing. All this is for urban Indian readers! As for the rural realities none in New Delhi seems to be much concerned. Even our own IT boom hadn’t impacted our rural India or our governance in New Delhi. Only the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and to some extent the exposures in the media seem to bother the politicians.

In Bihar, specially, it is the powerful caste leaders, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are making the political strategies. In UP it is again only Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. In other states too where the non-Congress governments are ruling, it is the non-Congress leaders who are more powerful than the local Congress leaders. In TN, it is even more funny and comical. The Congress is nowhere and yet they expose their utter irrelevance and it is Mr.Karunanidhi who rules as if he is still the Chief Minister and the boss and not the incumbent Chief Minister! The PM and Sonia Gandhi pictures are put along with Karunanidhi in all Central government functions and more in a manner that is highly deplorable if not downright objectionable and in bad taste. The PM comes and participates in functions, book release by one MP, a known detractor and yet the state CM is completely left out even in the main function, for the inaugurate Central government funded hospital.

In other states, again the governors are behaving with no norms to govern their conduct. The Supreme Court bluntly says “as if the Governors are party functionaries of the ruling party in Delhi”.

Much more dis-spiriting is the headlines news is much more pedantic concerns. The 2-year minimum tenure for six top secretaries and others like the CBI, RAW and IB Directors. What makes the news ‘newsworthy’ is the details about how other Secretaries are quarreling among themselves for similar extension of tenure! Yes, even the names make their way into news reporting so that the news becomes bureaucratic gossip for the day!
Yes, the PM makes news whenever he travels abroad and that makes for front page news. Yes, the PM has been making some big news, for instance his US visit and the signing of an understanding for the civilian nuclear energy programme and also when he went to the UK where for instance he did invite criticism for applauding British Empire’s contribution to make Indians learn governance!

Otherwise, the PM has been keeping himself aloof or kept aloof by the party functionaries in critical political decision-making. May be that is as it should be for the PM was nominated and not elected. As for Sonia Gandhi’s role in the affairs of higher governance of the country, her interest and insights into the Congress party functioning is rather routine. At the very first sign of any protest by the Alliance partners Sonia Gandhi simply retreats. So too the PM.
What all these new features of the functioning of this coalition government point to, in our opinion, is that the quality of governance is not what India is capable of providing. We have reasons to believe that even some of the major ministries are not putting their best into performance and producing results. Agriculture Ministry in the hands of such a competent person like Sharad Pawar is not on par. Take the pace of investments. There is nothing to write home about when it comes to monitoring the flow of investments in the agri sector.

There is no way of knowing. Either about the specifics of the public investments in major segments or the private investments or the FDI in select sectors. These are the critical sectors, agribusiness or such large projects like the ones the W.Bengal Chief Minister is grappling with his party and his government over distributing something like 5,000 acres of land for some foreign consortium to build townships and industrial/biotech parks. The Central government cant sit unconcerned. There are crucial policy issues that have to be resolved. Land reforms laws need amendment and what Mr.Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is trying to do has to be done by other Chief Ministers too and we need a transparent policy on land reforms and land ceiling laws need amendment. More FDI would flow into the rural India only when such long-neglected policy decisions are facilitated by a pro-active pro-poor government like the one at the Centre. This is just only one instance. There are others like creating the special economic zones for creating more diversified agri base.

Mr.Pawar is also manning the PDS as the Food Minister. We wonder whether he had read all the reports on the malnutrition crisis that is gripping his own states in Vidarba and other belts. We also wonder whether he is sensitive to the farmers suicides in the same region. Why the agri credit flow is so faltering? Is this not the mandate of the agri minister?

Again, he is also in charge of the Co-operation portfolio. What is the state of the Co-operative banking sector, urban co-ops and the rural primary co-ops? He knows well they are almost dead. Nor the functioning of the Nabard. There is so far no indication the agri minister is seized of these critical issues that defines the poor performance of the agriculture sector.
Take the Finance Minister. He promises but not delivers visibly any results in the agri credit lending targets.

It is a sing of the times that at least there is some boldness on the part of some PSUs. The ONGC chairman Mr.Raha had openly told the AGM that the PSUs are not government depts.! Who doesn’t know? Everybody knows. Yet the PSUs are even now run as if they are govts.! So, the ONGC chairman dared to tell the meddling ministers to keep off! So, the sort of respect and moral authority the ministers used to command is fast eroding. The PM must be doing something about this outwardly deteriorating Governance norms.

The UN’s HDI Report 2005 makes clear our progress on the poverty reduction front is poor. India is ranked at 127th out of 177 countries (2003) and China at 85th. Sri Lanka 93rd. Every year a theme is explored, this year it is aid, trade and security. Fine, we need more aid or rather investments, in particular FDI in critical sectors. Trade has to expand and our agri sector exports must go up seriously. We need policies to this end. Security is very, very critical and we have to ensure not only military security but economic and social security, environment etc. Agriculture becomes critical for these goals too. New technologies can go a long way. What new technologies, IT in rural communications and to enhance the quality of life for those in the digital divide?

This is a complex topic and yet we like to point our that what matters is this area of great human deprivation is not the claims we make. The HDI makes a damn indictment of the Indian efforts when compared to what Bangladesh had achieved. The HDI has rich data for Indian planners to sit up and take note. Bangladesh is far ahead of the Indian states like UP, Bihar and Rajasthan in critical social sectors. Karnataka ,AP and Gujarat come out well as indications of what globalisation can do for the states. There is one lesson here. It is not just economic growth and even superior economic development that decides the quality of life of the poor but the quality of social welfare programmes we implement. It is the genuine action that matters. The EGA is not just one more routine announcement, it is really getting down to improving the mechanism that delivers results at the grass roots.

The PM must be only knowing too well the ground level realities. There is organised corrupt channels to route the contract money from ‘implementing’ the rural development works, be it road works or food for work programmes. Just have a look at the TN scene. The party functionaries at the lower levels are ‘paid’ for monthly for their party loyalties and party work. I can very well imagine how this new party-cum-programmes are meshed into an elaborate corrupt machine. Since I live in Bangalore, I am able to follow the various raids by the highly-admired Lokayuta and the extensive corruption culture even in such a modern city is unassailable readers can imagine the state of affairs in other states. There is no political party in India, that doesn’t own unaccounted money. The CPI(M), as revealed by the Finance Minister, owns assets worth some Rs.5,000 crores!

Party funds, the sources of the same need to be probed and the Lok Pal Bill is kept in cold storage and it makes news only when ever the highest court asks for report on some PIL or other!

How can the bureaucracy that is interested only in itself can be made to do others’ work?
This government hasn’t taken any serious steps to put into action any bold new innovative ideas, like the Public-Private Partnership, either at the top levels or at the bottom levels. In agri sector there is no serious intention to change things and introduce some momentum in the lives of the poor. The panchayats too need this concept if the funds are to be used properly. Now, there is no thought to such new innovative administrative mechanisms to implement the EGA. One wondors how the EGA is being implemented. We don’t want to ask too many questions! We live in the villages and we interact with the villagers and we for one know for sure the District Collectors or their revenue officials are the answer! Among the most corrupt depts revenue tops or comes next to police, transport, land registration. For most work in the rural development you need the revenue officials help, for getting this or that piece of paper and only those who live in the countryside would know the dimensions of the wretchedness of living there.

The critical issues of Governance don’t make news, let alone headline news. We also don’t hear the Prime Minister or the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi or see them in the countryside.

Here also we see a contrast with China. Yes, China is a one party government. The Chinese president and premier (Hu and Wen) have been travelling extensively and announcing on the spot concessions like abolishing the farmers’ taxes. Because we don’t have a really politically legitimate leadership in Delhi we see this aloofness. Our current crop of minister, are lightweights, often only the below average men get to the coalition-dictated ministry, often the leaders don’t want any threat from more talented persons!

They even don’t ravel much inside the country, except for some quick visits to open some building or visit some disaster victims. These are lately becoming more photo opportunities and to make the right sound bites for the TV screen and the pro-government newspapers.
It all seems to be a sign of the times. Let the ministers rule as they please. Let the higher-ups in Delhi mind their business. Let the poor somehow exist. Election times only matter! In the lives of the politicians as well as the helpless voting poor!

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