Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rooting for a Minimal State

This piece first appeared in Firstpost. Unfortunately, the heading was not quite in tune with the article. Apart form the fact that it won't endear me to either Narendra Modi or Digivijay Singh, and got me a lot of abusive comments from Modi-bhakts who seem to rule cyberspace.
As I listened to Narendra Modi hold forth on the theme for which he is being feted all around – maximum governance, minimum government – my mind could not help but go back 11 years. On 27 May 2002, a then-celebrated chief minister and now Modi’s arch baiter, Digvijaya Singh, delivered the first Minoo Masani Memorial Lecture. The topic: More Governance with Less Government.
Singh had used this phrase when I had interviewed him for the business magazine I then worked for. That was so much in line with the philosophy of the Swatantra Party that Masani had co-founded that I got him to deliver the lecture.
There is no text of Modi’s address at the ThinkIndia dialogue series for readers to judge for themselves, but as speeches go, I rate Singh’s lecture higher. It put the issue in a historical context and provided a perspective that Modi’s chatty-jokey sermon did not. 
Singh had wowed the audience at the India International Centre then, much the way Modi captured everyone’s imagination when he first articulated his now pet phrase while addressing students at the Sri Ram College of Commerce earlier this year. But there was no social media then to hype up the speech and the speech-giver.
But, just look at the irony. The Congress had a headstart over the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a chief minister who was probably the first to articulate this idea and, dare I say, attempt to implement it as well. And it is the Congress that is heading a government whose actions are designed to perpetuate the mai-baap orientation of the government, thus increasing its size, even as governance suffers.
Take education. As chief minister, Singh experimented with government financing of education and leaving provisioning and supervision to the community. The jholawala brigade castigated him for initiatives like para teachers – part-time teachers drawn from within the community who were paid less than government teachers but were more accountable than them – but it was a commendable experiment. In contrast, his party first pushed through and is now implementing a law – the Right to Education – that insists all schools must pay government salaries to teachers and hence shuts all community and low-cost private initiatives for the poor, even as the government schools are unable to meet the demand for education.
M. R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, an independent research initiative, had once pointed out how some of the new Bills that the United Progressive Alliance had either introduced or mulling – the National Food Security Bill, the draft Communal Violence Bill (the National Advisory Council’s version), the Lokpal Bill and the Right of Citizens for Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill – would result in a large number of new posts being created. The Food Security Bill, for example, requires the appointment of a grievance redressal officer in each district and for every state to have a State Food Commission, comprising a chairperson and five members. The Grievance Redressal Bill stipulates 11-member grievance redressal commissions at the centre and the states. The Communal Violence Bill talks about an Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation, at the centre and in the states, each with a chair, a vice-chair and five members.
Meanwhile, the state’s primary responsibility – law and order and rule of law – suffers because of shortage of police personnel and judges. Clearly, Singh hasn’t managed to get his own party to buy into his model of governance. Its motto, on the other hand, appears to be More Government with Little Governance.
Both Singh and Modi would bristle at this, but there are many similarities between the two lectures, despite their contrasting world-views.
# Both spoke about the need to right-size the government as against the more reviled concept of downsizing, with examples to show that rationalising the workforce need not affect the quality of government services. Singh got jan swastha rakshaks (educated village youth trained in primary health care) to provide basic health services in villages; Modi got students from engineering colleges to do internships with departments that needed technical help.
# Both spoke of the need for effective decentralisation and devolution of power to the grassroots and how the country cannot be governed from Delhi or state capitals.
# Both drew attention to how people’s involvement in governance leads to better outcomes. Singh’s experiments included rogi kalyan samiti (government-run hospitals being managed by people’s committees), joint forest management and water users’ associations. Modi’s P4 formula (people-public-private-partnership) is somewhat similar.
# Both also highlighted the fact that people are willing to pay user charges if they see a clear benefit for themselves. The rogi kalyan samitis, for example, managed to raise finances through such user charges which were then used by hospitals to buy equipment. In Gujarat, people are willingly paying a fee at 200-odd One Day Governance centres where paperwork related to 160 services is completed in one day, with the help of technology.
Singh’s lecture has some tips for Modi, who lamented that politicians often delayed unpopular decisions – retrenchment of excess government staff being one of them – whenever there was an election around the corner. Singh’s government abolished thousands of vacant posts and retrenched 28,000 daily wage employees in municipalities, despite criticism from within his party, just before elections to local bodies in 1994. The Congress won those elections.
Does his speech indicate that Modi really wants a small but effective state in the classical liberal mould, one which will confine itself to national security, internal law and order, upholding the rule of law and protecting individual liberties and the provision of public goods?
It’s difficult to decide on the basis of one speech. Such a concept of a state will mean doing far more than allowing self-certification of boilers and lifts or electronic delivery of services that Modi boasted about. These, in any case, are not initiatives he or Gujarat pioneered or invented. Besides, this is just tinkering. A minimal state will require a complete change in the way both politicians and the people view the role of government.
A strong but effective state will leave little scope for patronage by politicians and will definitely not have any room for the state to be in business. Modi is not an unconventional politician so it is unlikely that he will willingly give up the heady power of patronage (ditto for Singh). And when quizzed about privatisation of state public sector enterprises after the lecture, he very clearly waffled.
In any case, even if Modi does subscribe to the minimal state idea, it’s not certain if he can carry the rest of the BJP with him, just like Singh couldn’t influence the Congress.
But what I found encouraging about the two speeches – 11 years apart though they may be – is that the two mainstream parties have people who appear to be thinking alike on issues of basic governance.
May their tribe increase.

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