Pragmatic | What is broken and what are we fixing?

India’s blunt instruments of governance can not deliver the change we want.

The India Shining story is finally over. Or so it seems, if you follow the mainstream media — international or national — and social media outlets. Although the India Shining slogan had run its course in 2004 parliamentary elections, the message lasted far longer, for almost another six years.

In the India Shining period, there was a surfeit of good news from and about India. And it made the average, english-speaking Indian feel good. She didn’t belong to the land of elephants, snake-charmers and Maharajas any more. The West was afraid of India’s growth — the westerners feared for their jobs being gobbled by the Indians. It felt great to hear that India would overtake the United States as the world’s second largest economy by 2040 (or was it 2025?).

It was India Unstoppable. Of course, India didn’t miraculously become perfect in 2004 (or in 1998). There was enough of the downside — poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, underemployment and unemployment, low agricultural growth, urban squalor, infrastructure deficit, terror strikes and yes, even corruption. But they did not dominate the narrative in the minds of the average middle-class Indian. The perception was that India would somehow overcome all these pinpricks and march ahead fearlessly.

Then something happened in 2010. The story of corruption in the Commonwealth Games was perhaps the turning point. A scintillating Opening Ceremony did spawn some patriotic fervour but that elation was short-lived as stories of one scam after another continued to be highlighted in the media. By the middle of 2011, situation has come to such a pass that people were struggling to find positive news, leading some of them to create hashtags on twitter marking good news. Despondency, cynicism and outrage are the predominant emotions in op-eds, TV discussions and on social media platforms today.

It is India Horrible. Of course, everything hasn’t fallen apart in this country in the last nine months. Kashmir has been peaceful, purposeful negotiations with insurgent groups in the North East have delivered results, terror strikes on the Indian mainland have been conspicuous by their absence, FDI inflows have picked up, Aadhar unique identity numbers have been issued to many Indians, peaceful elections have been held in many states and India has even won the cricket world cup. But the narrative is distinctly negative — it is not only feared but many Indians believe that the India story is unravelling now.

Interestingly, those charged with corruption in the recent months — and this includes some very powerful people — are behind bars. New laws are being promised to tackle corruption in high places. But the mood doesn’t seem to change.

What has brought us here?

India’s archaic governance system — policing, judicial, political and administrative — just couldn’t keep pace with the rapid rate of social and economic change in the country. A proverbial fuel-guzzling, high maintenance, constantly under repair, outdated vehicle of governance could be run inefficiently by pouring in more resources provided by India’s high growth rate. Even then, like a spluttering vehicle, it barely managed to pull through up to a point and seems to have finally broken down now.

The political class, by the nature of electoral politics and accountability to the people, has been the hardest hit by this crisis of credibility. Its reaction has been to shrivel, yielding its legitimate space to the judiciary, media and the civil society. The judiciary, media and the civil society have further targeted the political class, often for their own selfish reasons, and prescribed solutions based on its misdiagnosis of the problem.

The Supreme Court, in one judgement after another, blames the economic reforms of the early 1990s, neo-liberalism policies, big-bad business houses for the state of the country. It quotes extensively from Leftist literature, and left to its own devices, it seems that the Supreme Court would want India to embrace communism of the Soviet variety. That would mean more power to the Indian State.

The civil society isn’t far behind. Various types of civil society — from the NAC to Team Anna — want a greater role for the Indian state. And in various fields, be it the Jan Lokpal or the Right to Education or the Right to Food or to end communal violence, it wants the Indian government to do everything, and more of everything in everything.

Media needs a Black and White narrative, a hero and a villain. Politicians are the villains; the Supreme Court and the Civil Society the heroes that will slay the villains. And their weapon of choice seems to be the Indian government.

But there is a problem. India’s instruments of governance may have been sharp half a century ago but they are blunt for today’s era. Their failure to reform, reinvent and modernise themselves means that they are unsuited to today’s social, political and cultural mores. When these blunt instruments are hastily applied to the problems — whether under directions of the judiciary, or under pressure from the civil society and the media — they end up causing more grief instead of solving the problems. Applying more force to these blunt instruments only tends to worsen the situation, after the initial applause has subsided.

It is a crisis of governance. Unless the Indian state is able to undertake large-scale reforms — administrative, electoral, parliamentary, judicial, police, tax, labour, regulatory, and military — to sharpen its edge, applying greater force is not going to make a difference. In an inverse of the American saying, if it is broken, damn well fix it.

It is not that the UPA government doesn’t understand this reality. The Prime Minister had identified administrative reforms as the need of the hour in 2004. Mr Veerappa Moily has produced many volumes of reports under the ambit of the Administrative Reforms Commission. The road-map for police reforms lies unused for many years now. The state of reforms in other sectors is no different. There is just no political will to undertake these reforms. While the focus of the people remains on the symptoms like corruption, the malaise remains unattended and untreated.

But why the surprise over this situation when the conditions for this narrative of despondency existed for some time? Yes, there was a failure to predict these events. In a way, it was like trying to predict when an earthquake will occur. You know that the tectonic conditions are in place for an earthquake, but you do not know with any precision when the earthquake will occur. Accordingly, while most observers were surprised in one sense — by the timing, by the rapidity of the spread of despondency and outrage — some of us were not surprised in another sense that the situation so developed.

Notwithstanding the rapidity of spread of pessimism, the depth of the change that this emotion produces is far more important. It is clear that India is not going back to the status quo ante. This is the start of a long, uncertain path toward change in India, in politics and in governance. The consequent change must be structural, progressive and forward-looking.


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.