Why incumbency tanks Govts despite well-meaning schemes

Bureaucrats have a knack of telling stories that rulers relish. It creates a false feedback loop about government schemes.

The results of the recent elections to the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana assemblies are quite baffling as they defy the traditional psephological calculus. If anti-incumbency is the factor that went against Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel and Chandrasekhar Rao, the same factor faltered in the case of Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh.

Let us examine how anti-incumbency sentiment works. Governments try to reach out to people by formulating programmes aimed at the weaker sections and arguably addressing the felt needs of society. In Indian electoral politics, it is common practice that ad hoc welfarism takes precedence over hardcore sustainable development goals. Appeasement of social groups based on caste and regional considerations is an electoral tactic employed by all political dispensations. Every government is acutely aware of the possible disenchantment that could set in by thwarted expectations and lackadaisical implementation of programmes. Anti-incumbency sentiment is the culmination of dissatisfaction growing into disaffection that soon morphs into dejection and loss of hope. The voting out of the ruling parties in these three states by convincing margins is the sure seal of dejection and loss of hope, euphemistically called the anti-incumbency factor.

Is it not possible for a government to sense this evolution of people’s dissatisfaction with the regime? Though theoretically possible, in practical terms there seems to be a distorting glass that constantly conveys deceptive and self-serving messages to the government. Bureaucracy is perhaps the biggest distorter. Power has a penchant to listen to make-believe stories and bureaucracy has a knack of telling the stories that rulers relish. As a result, every scheme implemented will be reported as hugely successful, having great outcome and impact. The objectivity and credibility of these assessments are seldom questioned or cross-checked either by independent evaluation or through political machinery. The political feedback loop is often as biased and compliant as the official feedback. Apart from the fanfare that marks the launch of new programmes, there is hardly any close monitoring or compulsive commitment to their indented outcome. Self-criticism is absent and fair criticism is nipped. As governments affirm their disinterest to discover executive lacunae, objective feedback gets stunted.

This style of programme implementation traps ruling dispensations in an alley of delusion. They continue to introduce new schemes which also meet with the same fate of administrative sclerosis. This is evident from the observed fact that governments do not disturb the existing administrative culture in their states. Sharp-focusing of programme implementation, commitment to social justice, leveraging appropriate technology to make service delivery transparent and faster, and eliminating corruption should ideally be the hallmarks of an administration that believes in outcomes. Grandiloquent claims of ‘achievements’ would ring hollow as long as the experience of the ordinary citizen is still compromised by the feudal mindset in offices, rampant corruption and nepotism and preferential treatment at the grassroots level.

E-governance experiments have had little impact in resetting attitudes and beliefs in administration. Nor is there any evidence of a parallel social revolution or political movement in any of these states that would demand accountability and protect citizens’ rights and entitlements. Such a climate would have made imperative a rights-based administration displacing the ‘bread-crumbs-throwing’ style. When political authority is seen to be complacent with the administrative status quo, society gives up hope of any radical change in government.

Anti-incumbency is not just an election-eve sentiment. With wide margins in election results, it should be inferred that the electorate has made up its mind much earlier. No amount of hype can out-manoeuvre the deep-set dejection of people. Those in power often fail to see these omens blinded as they are by a set of limitations and habits, such as blind trust in bureaucracy’s will to objectively and proactively implement programmes; complacency with the existing practices; non-insistence on accountability; misreading social mood and interpreting volatility as the need for new schemes; oversight of society’s preference for a strong government; refusal to appreciate society’s perception of overtly appeasing governments as weak.

These keys perhaps could decode the enigma of BJP’s comeback in Madhya Pradesh and the algorithm of its triumph in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The anti-incumbency sentiments and fatigue Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s administration had acquired over the past 15 years had been set off by the same party’s government at the Centre. What the state government lacked was compensated by the Centre in the voter’s perception.

This booster was, however, not available to the Congress regimes. The administration of central government schemes is more tech-savvy and responsive than state schemes. With the image of the central government being constantly and consciously projected as powerful, resourceful and growing in international stature, the Madhya Pradesh government could win the confidence of the electorate more by riding pillion. That Chouhan has not been made CM again is indeed a clear validation by the BJP that he is not the architect of its victory in MP.

The moral of the story is evidently not that this back-up of the central government alone accounts for electoral victory, but that the surest winning formula is the fair implementation of schemes that ensures accountability, outcome and impact. The electorate values boldness and political will of a government that deconstructs self-defeating and process-bound bureaucratic ways and catalyses a true citizen-centric and outcome-focused implementation that fills the void between the ruler and the ruled.

K Jayakumar

Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University


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