The news reports of secretaries to the government of India running around tidying up their office complexes in fear of an imminent visit by prime minister Narendra Modi puts one in mind of the hilarious short story—“Inspector General” by the early 19th Century Russian novelist, Nikolai Gogol.
Warned of a “surprise” visit by the IG checking up on the workings of the state apparatus in the hinterland, an outpost of the Tsarist empire finds itself suddenly in the thrall of frantic activity with previously somnolent and corrupt officials at all rungs of government busy sprucing up the workplace, “cooking” the books, and addressing the woes of a startled people, in the hopes of pleasing the boss. In this fraught milieu a luckless traveller is mistaken for the eminence himself and feted and fussed over, wined and dined, before someone in the town discovers he’s not the real thing and he is unceremoniously booted out! Gogol could be lampooning the 21st Century Indian state.
It is good that the mere hint of Modi on the prowl has galvanised the babus. The question is whether such heightened awareness, order, and efficiency can be sustained, become a permanent feature of government? More likely Modi’s “11 commandments’’ will lose steam before these can percolate to the grassroots levels of bureaucracy. But such measures, while a welcome antidote to years of paralysis in the previous regime, are concerned only with the processes of government and not the content and larger aim of policies.
Candidate Modi’s promises were grander, far-reaching. He had promised galloping growth, responsible financial policies, minimising the role of state in the lives of people while ensuring that government services and social welfare benefits are delivered efficiently to the deserving. But this requires a ruthless axing of a multitude of useless government bodies and organisations and radical pruning of public payrolls. Speedy digitisation and computerisation of records and of official functioning generally will beget a paperless regime and facilitate a better outreach that he favours. It’ll, moreover, reduce the rocketing government expenditure and crippling fiscal deficit and improve India’s credit rating.
But, and this is worrying, there’s no blueprint for such dismantling of the socialist state and the agencies of the “command economy”, no trace of a scheme for privatising the public sector, nor any indication of the “rules of business” guiding the various ministries and agencies of government being rewritten to remove anomalies (such as defence secretary being responsible for the security of the country!). In the proverbial first “100 Days”—the honeymoon period, Modi with his sweeping mandate can push through the most ambitious structural and systemic reforms in the government of India. If this opportunity is lost then the aim of a smaller, efficient, more effective apparatus of state will remain only a dream, and changes Modi rings in to improve state functioning will last only as long as he does in power.
The troubling thing is Modi’s success as chief minister in turning around Gujarat state government enterprises suggests he believes he can do the same with the national public sector units (PSUs), most of them on life support. In that case, PSUs will endure and in the defence sector, for instance, it will mean dependency on imported armaments in perpetuity. The fact is not one defence PSU can survive fair competition with the private sector companies who, driven by the profit motive, are masters at ingesting and innovating transferred foreign technology for commercial gain, and their labour is markedly more skilled and productive. In contrast, what the ordnance factories and Hindustan Aerospace Ltd. do is assemble tanks and aircraft from imported kits under licence manufacture agreements, relying desperately on the department of defence production in the ministry of defence to steer large military acquisition programmes with local production element exclusively to them. The extant arrangement will continue draining off India’s wealth in the name of security.
If there are no plans to shrink the government, there’s no evidence of new policy ideas either. Most conspicuously, Modi has not so far articulated a vision for India—which should have been the first order of business. Unless there’s a singular national vision to guide the various arms of government, contextualise policies, and to motivate the people, government activity will be dictated by inertia and past policies, dressed up in new frills, will continue to be pursued. Indeed, the Congress party was quick in charging the BJP government of merely “copying” its policies. This is apparent from Modi falling in with, say, the ministry of external affairs’ agenda without first laying out the parameters of policy. The only section of society that so far feels empowered is the bureaucracy, whence a story in a pink paper, taking off on the BJP’s election slogan, was tellingly titled “Ab ki bar, babu sarkar” (as if it was ever otherwise!).
Let’s be clear about what visioning is not. Cultivating a friendly neighbourhood is not vision, encouraging economic growth is not vision, emphasising economic diplomacy, or even improvement of strategic ties with assorted countries, such as Japan, ASEAN, Russia, and the United States, isn’t either. Nor are sets of policies labelled “Look East”, “Look West” or look wherever tantamount to vision. These are tactical policies of the moment. Vision is related primarily to geography and physical constants.
The only time India had a genuine, if flawed, vision was when Jawaharlal Nehru spelled one out at the dawn of the republic. Addressing the first Asian Relations Conference in Spring 1947, he spoke unfortunately of an “Asian”, rather than an Indian, “Monroe Doctrine”, derived from president James Monroe in 1823 defining the entire hemisphere of north, central, and south America as US’ exclusive backyard at a time when that country had little hard power. In line with his view that “the need of the hour is to think big” and based on India’s geostrategic centrality, Modi should declare an Indian Monroe Doctrine sphere encompassing the Indian Ocean Region and, landwards, the arc of the Gulf-Caspian Sea-Central Asia. This grand vision of great power should be the lodestar guiding all policies.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com