In a matter of days, there will be a new government led by Narendra Modi that would be faced with the herculean challenges of rampant corruption, tardy growth, unemployment, spiralling prices of essential goods and a fractious polity being fuelled through deep-rooted perceptions, however misplaced they may be. Tailing the poll campaign three issues bothered the mindset of an average voter. The first and foremost was corruption, with an accusing finger at the door of the previous ruling dispensation. The emergence of Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi was significantly on the hope of anti-grant measures promised by the Aam Aadmi Party in addition to the promises of freebies of power and water supply. The second factor of widespread dissatisfaction was on account of inflation affecting the common man. The elite debated on wholesale and consumer price indices but forgot to read the budgetary impact of spiralling prices of vegetables and grains. The housewife was more puzzled as there has been no shortage of supply including the case of onion. Perhaps, the wrong doers and hoarders are hands in glove with other forms of crony capitalism. The third important factor is the complex issue of secularism, which having been wrongly advocated and executed to earn votes ultimately promoted disharmony. The minority felt threatened with the repeated message of likely insecurity.
From the new government, it is natural to entertain huge expectations. It is impossible to satisfy all. But there are four national-level priorities that should be adopted with broad consensus. The government must assiduously address communal harmony, topping the agenda of action. In practical terms, this would translate into the government showing zero tolerance to any form of communal and caste disturbances. No sympathy of any kind should be shown to miscreants irrespective of their political affiliation. It is widely perceived that communal riots flare up due to delayed response of the law and order machinery. Unfortunately, most states have a work culture where the tendency is to seek superior orders. Even petty arrests are postponed for want of political direction. A clear message needs to be sent that the subject of law and order must be handled by the administrative machinery on the spot. The Centre will have to play its role and the states must not be left in any doubt that the former will have a proactive response to any form of communal disturbance. It may be argued that the subject belongs to states and an active Centre is a compromise with the principle of federalism. To dispel such controversy, it is necessary that the Modi government initiates a dialogue with the chief ministers. The cooperation of the states must be sought and ensured for effective results. To achieve that and for no unfortunate occurrence to remain unattended, a trained force either from the state or the Centre must reach the spot anywhere within three-six hours. There are rapid action police forces in the states and the Centre who can be deployed in various zones to minimise the response time. The local law and order machinery should bear primary responsibility and it should be made clear to the district administration that there is no need to seek instructions so long as the disturbances are being curbed with an iron hand.
The Union government should even make it clear that the relevant articles of the Constitution would be utilised to make direct intervention feasible in any specified area if the riots are not effectively controlled. The protection of lives and property of locals must remain the highest priority of the district administration, the state government and the Centre. The recent unfortunate events of Assam and Muzaffarnagar, where response was delayed, must not resurface.
In case the Centre with the cooperation of states achieves the target of zero communal riots, it would lead to significant change in the political debate of India. The agenda and expectation will undergo a sea change. Instead of acrimonious debates and blame game on the tenets of secularism in theory and practice, the debate will change to growth, development and employment. This will also discourage agents who exploit religious sentiments as they’ll no longer be in demand.
The Centre can then focus to ensure the decline, if not demise, of crony capitalism. The mafia operates to plunder natural assets with the blessings of licences and misuse of discretionary powers. There are monopolies that acquire assets without paying market prices. The effective rent seekers collectively operate against a new entrepreneur. The new government must introduce transparency by promoting competition, effective and prompt prosecution of those guilty of graft, elimination of discretionary powers and responsive procurement mechanism with inbuilt checks and balances. The priority of development programmes must be conditioned by time-bound delivery. It should not be impossible to promise 24x7 power supply in a specified time span with investment coming from both public and private participation. Bottlenecks in infrastructure need to be dismantled. The resources of the states then could be better released for health and education sectors. With these major changes, the institutions of our democracy need to get reformed. Parliament must spend time on legislation. Judiciary should focus on cases involving justice for various sections of society and may have less reason to interfere in prioritising the exploitations of natural assets and admission to nursery classes. Executive must perform in terms of policy making and implementation and stop abdicating functions to other agencies.
To deliver, the sinews of federalism need to be strengthened. A country as huge as India cannot dream of having a smooth sailing democracy through central control. The cooperation and confidence of heads of the states must be sought and earned. It is possible by establishing institutional mechanism and reviving the tradition of communication between the Centre and the states. The PM must form a group with chief ministers and meet periodically to share the national agenda. Nehru regularly wrote to chief ministers keeping them apprised of affairs of internal and foreign importance. All the central acts need to be reviewed particularly if they have implications for providing delegated powers to states to legislate on provisions specific to them. Many licensing powers, environmental clearances and investment proposals should gradually be delegated. Flow of centrally-sponsored schemes should devolve on the states as a lump-sum grant rather than project-tied assistance. The task is not impossible and India can be pulled up from the deep pits it finds itself in.
The author is ex-chairman, TRAI, and director, Public Interest Foundation.