The midlife crisis of governance

It is not about one party or one leader. Our governance is too centralised, too top heavy, and too obese.

Humans and nations are similar in that both need periodic introspection, find meaning in their existence, refocus on what they can do and let go of what they cannot. For nations and humans, obesity can be a health hazard, robbing them of their agility, turning every chore, even essential ones, into a groaning and tedious task.

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Our union government today resembles an obese middle-aged man. Gone are the days of dynamism and enthusiasm. Performing even the bare essential tasks of a union government – conducting foreign and defence policy – seems painful and lethargic.

In a world obsessed with party politics – not to be confused with politics of governance, societies and existence – the glib solution would be to replace one head of government with another, purportedly more dynamic. Or to replace one political grouping with another one, more hungry for power. This is a tragic misunderstanding of the nature and scope of the problem.

Watch any government in India, central or state, after elections. Earlier there was ample time for the public to have its governance dreams betrayed. But today, the picture is different. Dynamic and promising leaders when in Opposition take reigns of the governance and within a matter of days, descend into mis-governance and scandals.

Government is often seen as a well-oiled machine that can be driven only by dynamic leaders. When this doesn’t materialise, even with dynamism at the top, the public gets perplexed and questions are raised about the competence and honesty of the ministers and bureaucrats. Collective disappointment hits the fan and solidifies into the refrain, “elections and governments come and go, but nothing will change.” Cynicism seeps into the national bone.

This ennui settling upon us needs to be analysed objectively, past the din of periodic elections and partisan pronouncements. Human institution can only do so much at any given time. Even governments teeming with energetic and purposeful individuals can only handle a set of issues at a time and govern effectively. And we should remember, no government is that perfect.

The obese Indian government is burdened by the excess weight of countless ministries and agencies. It groans while struggling to complete mundane tasks of governance. Even under the most favourable of conditions, decision making is difficult. But what happens when ministries are outdated, exist only to please coalition partners, take up responsibilities in already deregulated areas or areas devolved to the states and the markets?

Ironically, in democratic India, intra party politics is dictatorial. Every decision is referred upstairs for political clearance since initiative and dynamism of underlings are seen as a challenge to authority. Hence all files float upwards and, due to paucity of time and attention at the top, decisions rarely float downwards.

Further, coalition governments are sum of quasi-dictatorial groupings. So not only does each ministry decision go up and down the constituent party’s hierarchy, they then travel the maze of bureaucracies and collective politics. How can decisions, even in critical ministries, be quick?

How many decisions can a Prime Minister and his Cabinet take – especially when they usurp the functions of the market where millions of actors interact and decide? Will they decide on the nature and size of the PPP projects eluding the Railways? Will they go file by file and decide which airlines should merge with which other airlines or not? Will they decide on the exact percentage of dilution of stocks of some government owned coal company? Will they have time to decide on the exact amount of food to be delivered in each village, town and city of this vast and varied nation? Or will they save their energies to resolve border issues, water sharing disputes with neighbours, diffuse impending wars with neighbours orin faraway lands? Will they save their wits to reform our armed forces and make them modern and agile? Will they proactively deal and defuse internal security threats, nurture peace and security in historic trouble spots of which there are plenty? This list is hopelessly endless and the Cabinet is just a collection of mere men and women with no magical or superhuman powers.

These by themselves are impossible tasks for even the most competent of men and women. How can one expect the bloated, obese institution of union government, constantly distracted by demands from obsolete underlings, to have energy and passion left for responsibilities that are its own? In a world with only 24 hours in a day, this is humanly impossible.

Consider the Food Processing Ministry. Regardless of what its website proclaims as its objective, what is its purpose in a modern, global food market with millions of small, medium and giant entities involved in processing food? It can be brushed off as just another unavoidable nuisance in Indian life unless it starts believing its own rhetoric, starts legislating and becomes a hindrance to millions already surging ahead processing food.

Then there are ministries whose very existence is harming national progress, economy and environment. In developed countries, cities have Mayors and Councils with powers to make decisions—even bad decisions. Over a period of time, city governments learn to govern – not always neat as they learn from trial and error. Yet they learn to provide basic infrastructure and services that the denizens of cities expect.

In twenty-first century India, cities have minimal powers and responsibilities, and instead, we have central Ministry of Urban Development (MOUD) and their state counterparts. We have centralised schemes like JNNURM as means to fund urban infrastructure and services in select cities – ignoring thousands of other towns and cities – and elicit reforms.

City administrators queue up in MOUD with begging bowls for JNNURM funds for construction of storm water drains, buying buses, laying roads, and other mundane projects which should be responsibilities of any city government anyway. Modern nations empower their cities with taxation powers to raise funds to finance these amenities. Yet Indian cities – civilisational descendants of Mohenjo-daro, famous for its infrastructural marvels – are expected to be subservient to and grateful for the largess of central and state ministries. While global cities surged ahead with strong local governments, we add to our central obesity, and rob our cities of powers and accountability. The resulting pathetic state of urban development and consequences are there for all to see.

The damage caused by other mammoth ministries like Railways, Agriculture and Human Resource Development, by their very existence and size, is incalculable and unpardonable. Their very existence makes them massive hammers looking for nail-problems to solve. India is an astonishingly diverse nation. Instead of developing an education system that celebrates this diversity and decentralises powers to communities and consumers, Ministry for Human Resource Development, egged on by ivory tower activists, perpetrates one of the biggest centralising power grab in history and passes the Right to Education Act. The list of obsolete ministries and their burdensome deeds is also endless.

India, past its youth and entering midlife, needs to do some soul searching about governance, if we are to rise above our collective frustrations and outrage. Our governance is too centralised, too top heavy, and too obese. Irrespective of which grouping forms the Union government, we must resolve to shed its excess fat, devolve and decentralise its responsibilities, and refocus it towards what it should and only it can do.

Photo: articotropical