Over the barrel: Prime Minister’s new mantra

The needle of change must be shifted more sharply, democracy is not an acceptable cover for non-performance

Written by Vikram S Mehta | Updated: October 5, 2015 12:34 am
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Arun Maira, An Upstart in Government, Planning Commission, Donald Trump, Greek Prime Minister, Greece PM, Alexis Tsipras, indian express columns There is a message in these trends for our leadership. C R sasikumar

There is a telling vignette in Arun Maira’s interesting new book, An Upstart in Government. Maira was a member of the Planning Commission in the rank of minister of state between 2009 and 2014. A consultancy group made a presentation to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the nine steps that his government should take to ratchet up growth to 9 per cent per annum. Vajpayee heard them out and then observed: “We know all this. The question is how will it be done.”

Vajpayee put his finger on our leadership’s deepest dilemma. They know what is wrong. They know what must be done. But they do not know quite how to do it. The problem is that they are running out of time. People are losing patience with the explanation that it is the vagaries of democracy and the labyrinthine procedures of bureaucracy that stall the needle of change.

Worldwide, public support is drifting towards the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. This is because of a growing sense that the mainstream centrist politicians are doing nothing to correct the tilt towards the “one percenters” — those with incumbent resources, skills and power — and against the interests of the rest and to bridge the deepening income divide. This drift is leading to the emergence of a new breed of politicians who are contemptuous of political convention and who are championing social and economic nationalism. This breed is receiving unexpected public acclaim. Donald Trump is a standout example.

Last year, when he announced his candidacy for US president, he was the jokey butt of almost every talk show. His anti-immigration, protectionist, racist and sexist pronouncements were not expected to strike a chord. Today, he is leading the pack of hopefuls for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Jeremy Corbyn is another case. A few months back, he was an irrelevant, aged Labour Party backbencher. There were few who thought he could muster the support of 35 MPs — a requirement for contesting the Labour Party leadership.

His extreme leftwing, eurosceptic, anti-Nato and anti-nuclear positions were deemed extreme and a recipe for unelectability. As it happened, he not only secured the 35 signatures (just) but also won the election. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras offers another example. He, too, is anti-establishment and leftwing. His re-election cocks a snook at the advocates of “responsible economics”. All of these examples are reflective of a subterranean current of fear at the tension between the opportunities offered by an open internet shared economy and the uncertainties of an international order riven by civil war, terrorist threat, refugee influx and cyber espionage. It reflects doubt at the ability of the conventional mainstream political leadership to manage this tension.

There is a message in these trends for our leadership. Last week, our TV and print media carried commentaries of global CEOs, economists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, think-tankers and others on what should be done to restore India’s standing as a favoured haven for private investment. This was in the run-up to and during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US. They said nothing that had not been heard before. Or that was not known to him and his able advisors.

Or, indeed, that is not already on the agenda of the government. Infrastructure must be improved, bureaucracy must back off, procedures should be simplified, factor markets (labour, capital and land) should be structured to operate more efficiently, the fiscal regime must be transparent, predictable and stable, contract terms must be respected. So on and so forth. Still, it was important that they said what they did. For it contained a subtle message. The needle of change must be shifted more sharply, democracy is not an acceptable cover for non-performance, and if worldwide trends are anything to go by, there will be social and political consequences if the current gap between promise and delivery is not bridged quickly.

So the perennial question. What is to be done? Clearly, we must not dispense with democracy. That is our bulwark and it needs to be nurtured. We should, of course, debate whether the Westminster first-past-the-post system needs to be reviewed. But this debate, if ever triggered, would be contentious and long. And in the meantime, frustrations will mount. The government cannot afford an idle parlour game. So the focus should be on our other systemic blocker: the bureaucracy.

Maira offers another telling vignette. He wanted to hire two people from outside the Planning Commission to infuse new ideas. There was no budgetary allocation and the inter-ministerial approval process was too time-consuming. So he persuaded the Tata and Mahindra groups to “second” two of their executives at no cost to the commission. He then discovered that there was no mechanism for hiring individuals to do specific jobs.

Only consultant organisations could be hired and that too following a competitive bid. So the two secondees were asked to form a consultancy organisation. This organisation submitted a “no cost” bid. They were told this would attract undue attention and that they should put in a number. They eventually won the contract with a
Rs 1 lakh charge. Maira commented: “Things are never simple in a procedure-bound bureaucracy.”

Maira got what he wanted because of persistence and jugaad. But, as I am sure he will admit, this allows for only a temporary fix. It cannot compel a systemic change. For that to happen, the bureaucracy has to undergo a root and branch overhaul of its procedures and conduct rules. The Administrative Reforms Commission report offers a blueprint. Maira himself has left behind an implementation model for the Niti Aayog. There are other experts who have written on the subject. The point is that this must now be the focus of the prime minister. He does not need legislative support.

He has the administrative background. He is technologically savvy. The simplification of the nature and system of bureaucratic governance should be his new mantra.

The writer is senior fellow, Brookings Institution, and executive chairman, Brookings India

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  1. R
    Oct 5, 2015 at 8:23 am
    between 2009 and 2014...PM...Vajpayee..?
    1. B
      Barb Dewyre
      Oct 5, 2015 at 5:05 pm
      A page out of an Indian history book in the year 2050: after 10 years of UPA rule which was characterized by a quiet MMS, who seldom spoke and was considered above corruption, allowed corruption to prevail under him and which ultimately resulted in a rout of the Congress. The 10 years, though, were marked by a period of good economic decisions in 2008 which saw the country through global recession. However, with so many scandals to stave off, the government went into a self-preservation mode and governance suffered. People clamoured for a more dynamic leader..... In 2014, the NDA government came into power following a landslide vctory based on expectant promises made by their leader who just wouldn't stop talking on issues that really didn't matter once the election was won. He promised much and delivered less. The underlying agenda was to convert the tolerant nature of the country into an extreme right wing doctrine. Never was the statement " if you are not with me, then you are against me" more true. The people of this hapless country suffered through the five years while the future, with no viable alternative in sight, seemed dark......
      1. F
        Francis Anthony
        Oct 5, 2015 at 8:41 pm
        The government is in a very advantageous position to achieve anything it wants, even change the bureaucratic governance. But the fact is, nothing of significance seems to be happening may be because of “lack of intent” or “lack of capability” or a combination of both. Right now, getting the ruling party in every state seems to be the number one priority.
        1. G
          G M
          Oct 5, 2015 at 1:24 am
          Mr. Mehta all the ingrediants reqired for leaning towards left is available . A new breed of politicians who are contemptuous of political convention and who are championing social and economic nationalism. This breed is receiving unexpected public acclaim. In India increasing ugly image of religious intolerance, income gap, peoples increasing aspirations are the reasons which if not checked in time will result in uprising of extreme lefts.
          1. A
            Oct 5, 2015 at 12:32 pm
            Is column mein naya kya hai ?
            1. O
              Oct 5, 2015 at 5:57 am
              Westminster first-past-the-post system is not working. India should move towards US style presidential system. Direct election to President/PM/CEO/CIO, whatever you want to call it. WestMinsiter is based on honor system, our crooks exploited so well...there is no honor left. During Vajpayee last term, i think 2003, his govt introduced electoral reforms submitted by LK Advani committee. That did not go anywhere. But, Modii has numbers in LS, if he has any people skills, manager some more parties and get these changes throgh. Mainly, LK Advani committe, recommened on how to avoid mid-term elections, group state elections along with GElection. After 16 months, i don't think this f aker will do any reforms. Despiet he was sho uting reforms for UN last week. what a hypocrite.
              1. P
                Oct 5, 2015 at 8:44 am
                It is fairly difficult for any system using public money to adopt a process that is as discretionary as a private insution. Too often the decision maker is accused of corruption, even when the judgment is driven by work considerations. The British and US example can be countered by the German one. Germany has a strong democracy, possibly more vibrant than the other two, a very federal structure and still approves its major infrastructure projects in 2-3 years (it takes over 10-15 years even in the US). Democracy halts matter when decisions are dela or not made in the name of "process". It also opens matters to corrupt practices. If decisions are time bound, all the transparency and process won't be a hindrance.
                1. P
                  Pratap Sen
                  Oct 5, 2015 at 3:35 pm
                  This article is a joke. The PM is more concerned with self projection with the veneer of action. In spite of the huge bonus India received due to low oil and commodity prices we are unable to lift our growth beyond 5.5% as per the old series( 7% as per the new series is just window dressing) His cabinet is full of cow heads with zero capability who are more interested with cow protection than economic action. The only silver lining is the governor of the RBI who has kept the economy safe. Let PM first set accountability standard for himself and his ministers. The bureaucracy is the easiest whipping boy.His party parivaar is setting Indian against Indian with beef ban and other divisive cultural issues. It is really surprising that the author finds merit in such a dispensation.
                  1. X
                    Oct 5, 2015 at 5:59 am
                    He has the administrative background. He is technologically savvy. Thats a joke. Come on Mr. Mehta. Being a CM / PM with bureaucrats around and pressing a few buttons on a mobile does not make you savvy. Knowing how to measure the blood pressure does not make you a doctor. It is exactly people like you who put non existent virtues into Modi and elevated him to a demi god.
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