Nano! This word with Greek etymology is defined by the lexicon as something small, even minute. Nano also represents frugality, functional efficiency and affordable mobility. Nano in Gujarati quite simply means: small.
Abki baar nano sarkar is a middle class expectation that stems from a desire for an efficient government from people who echoed the idea of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and expressly voted for it.
Curiously, what constitutes big or small government has—in the discourse on government formation—acquired warped meaning and literal values. The excruciating eloquence of retired babus and their interpretations of reforms are acquiring the stature of installation art on news channels. Formulaic interpretations often result in obfuscation. Unsurprisingly, the idea is lost in translation: it would seem big government means larger number of ministries and minimum government fewer ministries!
Minimum government is not just about the number of ministries. It is about achieving the broadest of objectives with minimum government interface. It is about disinvesting the idea that the government knows best, that the government has the moral authority (even obligation) to design private lives. It is about unsubscribing from the notion that governance is about citizens queuing up for everything before the government. It is about demolishing the permission raj that funds the business model of politics in India. It is, above all, about dismantling the crippling idea of a nanny state, the mai-baap sarkar.
Of course larger number of ministries by definition does lead to overlapping of functions, inefficiency and multiple points of corruption. Of course there is a case for a drastic reduction in the number of ministries. It is a recurring theme in past columns and essays (Decentralise, Privatise, Liberalise http://bit.ly/1p3ak8k; Don’t Waste the Crisis http://bit.ly/1k3Kmdl; Why Prices Won’t Fall http://bit.ly/1oePyTi; Headless PSUs http://bit.ly/1m5Zvh5; Retail Politics Wholesale Hypocrisy http://bit.ly/1txj6eG; Useless Ministries http://bit.ly/TFeqqN).
The persistent expansion of the state is the reason why India is facing such a systemic collapse. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi created the HRD ministry by merging education, women and child, sports, culture and youth welfare. In 2014, we have independent ministries of culture, women and child, sports and youth welfare and the ministry for HRD. From 45 ministries in 1984, India now has 79 ministries. Form and size of government was flagged as early as in 1949 by the Gopalaswami Ayyangar Report. Since Independence, over 30 committees have mooted systemic reorganisation for smaller governments. Governments have binned every surge and urge. The splicing of ministries to accommodate political parties on the shelf of pelf is the principle reason why the coalition era has come to be the compromise era.
Maximum governance is about achievement of objectives, about outcomes. India is facing a serious energy crisis. The domain of energy with all its social and economic multipliers is managed by a ladder of seven ministries, the Planning Commission, state governments and regulators. India is at the cusp of a serious water crisis. Consider the number of ministries handling water: water resources, urban development, rural development, environment, agriculture, panchayati raj and food. Only a fourth of India’s women are part of the workforce. Any idea for improvement of skills among women, thus, has to navigate past the rural development, social justice, sports, youth affairs, finance, women and child welfare, and panchayati raj ministries. India’s dreams are often stalled between this vexatious model of shared authority for rights and relinquished responsibility.
India needs to redesign its government to derive results. What is the justification for the existence of, say, the ministry of company affairs? There is a regulator for company law, a regulator for serious frauds, and there are the autonomous self-regulatory bodies. What is the justification for a ministry of civil aviation? Airports, airlines are both under regulators. Every inch of India is ruled by the states. What then is the justification for ministries of education, health, transport, urban development, rural development, and panchayati raj to dictate policy to a legitimately elected state government? Policy and funding are determined in Delhi and implementation lumped on states. Nearly two dozen ministries at the Centre have no justification for existence. And what the Centre does to states, the states do to institutions like municipalities and panchayats. Both in Delhi and in the state capitals, typically, success is appropriated and failure is redistributed. India needs a rebalancing of authority and accountability.
The most fundamental challenge of restructuring is establishing what governments must aspire to do and what they should stay away from. Democracy is propped on a tripod—liberty, justice and equality. It is a delicate equilibrium. The contest in any democracy is that between rights of individual and interests of society. Political parties find the electoral promise of bridging inequality seductive. The quest to engineer equality fuels an entitlement epidemic, the expansion of the nanny state and anger too. Narendra Modi’s promise of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ demands the dismantling of the nanny state mindset. That is the real challenge; that will be a real legacy.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change