Thursday, July 26, 2018

India's Aspiration for a Functional System

I must narrate an incident of 1989 when a group of us from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi, with active interest in political and civil society activism, had gone to meet the then Prime Minister of India. We were assured by the organisers of this visit that we could convey our perspective on any issue to the Prime Minister and ask any question from him and we would receive an answer. When we reached 7 RCR (Now Lok Kalyan Marg), we found huge crowds, with many singing paeans in honour of the Prime Minister while waiting for an audience. As young JNU students, with some of us being barely out our teens, we had our own perspectives about the prevailing state of affairs in the country. We felt these were not reflected by the ambience at the lawns of Prime Minister’s official residence. Nevertheless, most people had come with some form of petition or representation to address some grievance, reinforcing our belief that our systems didn’t work without pressure or persuasion or intervention from the top.

When our turn came to meet Prime Minister late Shri Gandhi, I politely but firmly queried : “Mr Prime Minister Sir, do you know that every day so many instances of gross injustice keep on happening in this country? What do you do to address these?” He graciously answered with a degree of indulgence towards his young audience: “Whenever such instances come to my notice, I intervene and see that justice is done”. I showed audacity and impatience to add a rejoinder: “But sir, how many instances can gain attention of Prime Minister and how many people can reach Prime Minister of India? Why can’t we have a system where a peon does what he or she is supposed to do, an officer does his or her work and Ministers do their own duty? Why do we need interventions?”

What followed was a little pause and then a longish observation, ignoring even repeated reminders by the concerned staff that Prime Minister was getting late. We had the perspective of the most powerful man in the country on deficiencies of the system and challenges of governance. It contained sincere exhortation to young people to join politics. I vividly remember some of his words:  “good people, young people must join politics…… Fence sitters have no business condemning the system…. If intelligent and honest people don’t come in the playing arena, others will hijack it…. I and my team are trying our best but this is not sufficient …. it is not easy…”  All of us were touched by his honesty and sincerity and rather felt sympathetic towards him. Our suspicions and apprehensions against the highest political authority had substantially reduced, if not removed. Inspired by his exhortation, many of us joined politics but barring one or two, who are now active politicians, rest were soon disillusioned and eventually moved to different professions.

Three long decades have passed since then and many things have improved substantially but an average Indian's aspiration for an efficient and functional governance system remains unfulfilled.  I am sure the questions posed by young people three decades back must be resonating in the minds of even the youth of current generation. There is no doubt that Indian democracy is a shining example of its kind for peaceful transfer of political power but we are nowhere close to our collective economic and social potential as a nation. Political change in itself is inadequate unless structures of governance are transformed to deliver to their optimal capacity or may be stretch and enhance their very capacity itself. We all know that India and China were identical in terms of economic and military strength until early 1980s. Today, Chinese economy is five times bigger than India and their military prowess and defence capabilities is inferior only to the United States. We may console ourselves by citing reasonable progress that we have attained or a few enclaves of excellence that we have built. There is little doubt that the culture of excellence is needed in all spheres including politics, civil service, corporate world, civil society groups, academic and research institutions etc. It is possible and all that we need is the courage and audacity to think in this direction. We certainly need leaders in all spheres and at every level to pursue what could be a national vision.

Success of Indian democracy is critical not only for the fate of 1.3 billion Indians but also for determining the eventual fate of democracy itself as a mode of governance. If a multi-cultural India succeeds with a democratic model of governance to address legitimate aspirations of its people, the globalised world can tide over parochial populism else we are certainly in for a bigger challenge in not so distant a future. We live in an integrated and interdependent world. Poor physical and cognitive capacity of our population, their deficient skills and weaker institutions make us vulnerable in far too many ways. Even gaps in trade and technology can turn out to be lethal tools of predation . We do not have the luxury to progress at our own leisurely pace and console ourselves over tactical improvements.   

In the above context, the current political discourse in the country sounds fairly disappointing. It appears more like a psychological and verbal war among rival camps through every possible means to capture power. Governance and plight of either the people or the country, or even the very civilisation, seems reduced to a much lower priority. Indian democracy has covered a journey of 7 long decades of freedom.  it is time we move from sub-optimal leaking institutions to a framework of governance that can optimise our potential as a nation by transforming both our economic output and social cohesion to bolster the quality and level of  our overall national security.

In absence of high performing institutions that can deliver on promises of governance, all our good intents and great values sound hollow. People in the world’s biggest democracy and the most advanced ancient civilisation do not have to rely on mercy or discretion or even good conscience  of the incumbents in authority to enjoy their right to life, liberty and existence with dignity. At the same time, we do have an obligation to the entire developing world who look up to India as one of their own. We certainly need a more appealing vision and goals of governance  as a nation for our entire civilisation

       We hope peoples’ representatives across all divides can rise above their differences to pool in at least part of their energies to focus on governance challenges facing the country. Politicians need not and must not be burdened with responsibility of pushing and kicking a dysfunctional or non-performing system for their constituents. Democracy also carries no entitlement to manipulate institutions for political profiteering or even building permanent political constituencies. It is only a limited a contractual obligation of governance that  peoples' representatives are required to fulfil. In our context, priorities require pursuit of robust and efficient systems that can work in routine matters on its own and that too with a speed. Merely replicating and borrowing ideas and practices would not help even if these do contribute to building a better perspective. We have our unique challenges of governance and so are our social and otherwise realities. We need ideas and institutions that work best in our context. We certainly need a broader and bigger debate  on this subject.  We can move forward only through a sustainable partnership among all segments of society and polity.  

PS: This is part of the previous post only which has been split and edited  following feedback from some readers. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let us hope we mobilise some support for better institutions in India.

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