Rethinking Governance

Team Inclusion

Good governance is central to equitable socioeconomic progress and political legitimacy. From administrative and judicial reforms, sustained economic growth to social inclusion, India faces a host of governance challenges. India's ability to rethink governance will determine how good the country's demographic dividend would be, reports

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The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offers a broad definition for good governance. It means “among other things, participatory, transparent and accountable. It is also effective and equitable. And it promotes the rule of law,” says the UN agency. “Good governance ensures that political, social and economic priorities are based on broad consensus in society and that the voices of the poorest and the most vulnerable are heard in decision-making over the allocation of development resources.”

Good governance runs on four wheels: a representative, accountable government; a political system that derives legitimacy from participatory democracy; durable and solid institutions; and, equitable socioeconomic growth. In its essence, it’s the quality of governance that separates success from failure in socioeconomic development and political evolution of a nation. Across countries, application of the set of policies in roughly similar contexts has yielded vastly different results. These variations have a bearing on governance.

  “There must be judicial reforms. There must be administrative reforms from the grassroots. On the economic front, the most important task before us is to stop the government expenditure from bloating. Expenditure management and emphasis on quality expenditure should be the theme and for this we will have to work in a very determined way.”
— Yashwant Sinha, Member, Lok Sabha and former Finance Minister

Different countries face different governance challenges. India is compared with China. However, strictly going by the standards set by UNDP, China could not be a model for good governance. As tightly controlled by one party, it neither has participatory, transparent and accountable government nor are its socioeconomic priorities based on broad societal consensus. The justice system is subservient to the party. Yet, there is consensus in top leadership in China that the key governance challenges that question the party’s monopoly on power are massive corruption, uncoordinated, unstable and unsustainable economic model, and environmental degradation.

  “In terms of the type of people who are being elected, some very important changes in the electoral system need to be brought about. If the country shifts to a semi-proportional system of elections, the influence of money, muscle, caste and various other unhealthy things that go into the choice of candidates can be minimised.” — Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M)

Corruption and sustainable economic development are key problems in India, too. But, as a vibrant democracy, India had a distinct advantage as it has an accountable government that is subject to transparent surveillance on multiple fronts, democratically elected legislatures, an independent judiciary and evolving regulatory watchdogs. That’s India’s inherent strength.

Economic Liberalisation and Inclusive Growth

In the last 25 years, two main features of governance reforms in India were economic liberalisation and an emphasis on participatory democracy and inclusive growth. The basic principle of liberalisation was creating competitive markets with minimal barriers to entry and exit. Thanks to it, the country’s integration with the world has been seamless. Globalisation — as measured by the movement of ideas, people, goods, services and capital across borders — has brought immense opportunities and tough challenges in its wake. Yet, economic reforms and globalisation have not necessarily minimised the role of the state. Rather, it has only redefined it, expanding its role in some areas of economic activity and curtailing in others. In social development, the government’s role has not diminished.

In a move aimed at improving governance, the Union government constituted the second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) in 2005. It had presented 15 reports to government within four years. The reports covered the entire gamut of issues relating to public administration in keeping with the changed dynamics of governance and grapple with serious issues like organisational structure of the government, citizen-centric administration, decentralisation, internal security and public order, promoting e-governance and crisis management. The government has set up many groups of ministers (GoMs) to consider the ARC reports, review the pace of implementation of the recommendations they contained and provide implementation guidance to ministries/departments. However, the implementation has been at a glacial pace even though the ARC submitted its last report in 2009.

Clean Governance Must Start from the Top At its simplest form, good governance starts from the top and percolates downwards. In other words, it depends on the quality of our leaders, opines Naresh Gujral Improving governance is an age-old question. You have a treatise on good governance in Chanakya’s Arthshathra, as even in those times it was a relevant question. If you had a good and honest king, the governance is excellent. Honesty and integrity flow from the top to the bottom. At its simplest form, good governance starts with the quality top leaders and then percolates downwards.

The kind of corruption we witness in public life has produced cynicism among the people. It has adversely affected the body politic of our country. Every leader is considered a leader of stature only if he has a private airplane or helicopter at his or her disposal. Dirty money is funding such paraphernalia.

The clean-up of our political system must start from the top. If top leaders, say five or 10 of them, say they don’t want dirty money for themselves or their parties, then it could set a stellar precedent for others to follow. The pressure from civil society has increased in recent times to improve governance and minimise corruption, and this is a welcome trend. Our leaders choose to ignore the popular aspirations at their own peril.

But our country is fortunate in one sense. All our prime ministers have been intellectually honest and morally upright. Good governance cannot materialise when power and responsibility are divorced where the person who is responsible has no power and those who wield real power have no responsibility. 

In governance, small states have made tremendous progress. This is because governance can be easier and the improvements can be much more visible. Punjab may not really be known for its Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), but the level of rural development the state has achieved is noteworthy.

I am all for direct benefit transfer of subsides. That is a workable proposition. However, my only worry is whether the authorities have foolproof mechanism ready to implement it. 

As told to INCLUSION
The ARC reports contain an excellent starting point for rethinking governance, even though most of them are gathering dust than any serious effort being made to make them a reality. The debate on rethinking governance has gained wider currency with the advent of the information and communication technology revolution sparked by the Internet and social media. The systems and processes of governance have been very slow in forward movement to reform in every aspect. That’s the immediate reaction of a common man who lately visited a government office to get some work done or has a litigation pending in our court system. Widespread corruption and the policy paralysis — which has been the hallmark of coalition governance — have added urgency to the debate.

So, when Yashwant Sinha, who was a top bureaucrat before he entered politics and went on to become Finance Minister twice in the Chandra Shekhar and Atal Behari Vajpayee governments, says it’s time to think about ambitious reforms, the point must find wider resonance. “There must be judicial reforms. We can’t allow millions and millions of cases to remain pending with the judiciary. There should be time limits for a judge to decide cases. There must be administrative reforms from the grassroots. Sometimes, I feel that I am not a Member of Parliament; rather, I am the chief grievance officer of my constituency because the people have nowhere else to go. They come to me with their legitimate grievances because the administration at the lowest levels will not give them a hearing. They are not even accessible,” he says.

Need for Radical Shift in Electoral Reforms 
Sitaram Yechury, the CPI(M) leader, goes one step further and calls for “radical shifts” in the way India’s democracy functions. It is not so much rethinking governance, but rather fine-tuning our procedures and institutions that matters more, he says. The most important element of governance in a democratic set-up is electioneering, and it is here that India should rethink first, he says. “In terms of the type of people who are being elected, some very important changes in the electoral system need to be brought about. Otherwise you see what is happening in the name of democracy is that opinion of the people often gets distorted by factors other than political.”

Yechury proposes shifting to a semi-proportional electoral system. “This system is in place in many democracies where people vote for a political party and then the party submits a list to the election commission. Depending on the percentage of votes that it gets, candidates are elected. Given India’s complexity and diversity, a complete proportional representation system may not really suit us. What will suit us would be a mixture of both,” he opines.

Naresh Gujral, Rajya Sabha member from Punjab, echoes similar concerns about our electoral process. “Elections have been commodified. When dirty money funds election campaign across parties, how can the country ensure participatory democracy?” he asks.

“Good governance depends on the quality of our leaders. The kind of corruption we witness in public life now has produced cynicism among the people,” he adds.

(Comments are welcome at info@skoch.in)

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