The highway had potholes so huge they could have swallowed a small car. So the long, articulated lorries with MAERSK and Chevrolet written on their sides moved very, very slowly. They carried cars, containers filled with foreign goods and huge rolls of steel from a nearby factory. On either side of the highway sprouted new urban settlements, bereft of beauty or planning, and old, squalid slums whose unpaved lanes were awash with overflowing drains and rotting garbage. In a swampy marshland, people defecated in the open. The only signs of the Prime Minister’s ‘New India’ were cellphone towers and cable TV dishes.
My reason for providing so elaborate a description is because I was driving through a state run by a BJP government. It does not matter which one because they all have one thing in common: governance systems that have changed not at all since those bad old Congress days of yore. So if Narendra Modi’s dream of a ‘New India’ is to ever materialise, he will need to first acknowledge that his chief ministers and his own ministers have not understood that a new kind of governance is the most essential ingredient of all. The best of them speak of infrastructure projects as if they were a goal in themselves, instead of being just a means to a goal. If we need better transport systems and public services, it is to enable ordinary people to participate in the dream of building a new India.
One of the things that has prevented India from moving forward faster is that our officials continue to believe that they are servants of the government and not of the people. Once they achieve that ultimate Indian dream of somehow landing a ‘government job’, all they want to do is sit back and enjoy this reward. Luckily for us, our politicians need to do more because of the fear of getting thrown out at the next election, but too many of our current ministers are too inexperienced to know how to get the machinery of governance moving. They depend on officials for advice and the officials advise them to work in the same colonial way that they have, ever since our colonial masters departed.
Here I think it is important that I explain exactly what I mean when I use the word colonial in the context of governance. And, what I mean is an idea of governance that treats the needs of ordinary people with complete disdain. So if a railway line is laid or a new airport built, it is done to enhance the election prospects and ego of the minister or chief minister, not because it benefits the people. It is an idea of governance that treats the people as a ‘human resource’ and not as human beings.
One of the worst mistakes Rajiv Gandhi made in his quest for meaningless symbols of modernity was to change the Ministry of Education into the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It is shocking that none of the men who became prime minister after him has felt the need to rectify this mistake. If they had, we might at least have built better schools and colleges by now.
By the time you read this, the Prime Minister would probably have announced the changes in his Cabinet that we have been hearing of now for weeks. So it might be too late to suggest that he show a new idea of governance at his level by ridding us of ministries in the Government of India that have been irrelevant for decades. Delhi’s corridors of power have buzzed for weeks with whispers about how Modi and Amit Shah have spent hours mulling over ministerial changes because of the dire paucity of BJP talent. This is a blessing in disguise.
The fewer ministers we have, the better it is. The fewer ministries we have the more likely we are to get ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, which dear Prime Minister you did promise us. My next-door columnist said to me once, when he was finance minister long ago, that you could lop the bottom 10 items off the agenda of most ministries in the Government of India and they would not be missed. It never happened then but it can happen now, if we are to ever hope for a ‘new’ India.
In the past week, Mr Modi has faced severe criticism for his most disruptive economic reform so far: demonetisation. Some commentators have gone to the extent of suggesting that it has been his biggest mistake to date. In my own ever humble opinion, his biggest mistake has been to not summon his chief ministers and high officials together for a serious discussion on how methods of governance can be modernised. One small tip might help: stop viewing humans as a ‘resource’.