Holding simultaneous elections for different tiers of governance across the country has been advocated by the President and Prime Minister and has found favour with the Election Commission of India and many political commentators. However, it will be supremely naive to expect the reform to see the light of day anytime soon, notwithstanding its intrinsic merit. Elections to five State Assemblies have just concluded. In 2018, seven States go to the polls ~ Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Karnataka. Serious preparations are already underway for the 2019 General Elections. Winning these new-age battles through ballots is the most prized goal and understandably so.
It is, therefore, not surprising that, badly bruised from the dismaying, pundit-defying electoral battering, almost all the political parties which lost out, have shimmied on to the EVM controversy bandwagon that is needlessly hogging centre-stage. VVPATs (voter verified paper audit trails) are being touted as robust rectifiers of a system supposedly gone spooky. Old-fashioned ballot boxes have, strangely enough, found many votaries, the dark history of its brazen distortion having been most conveniently forgotten. Follow the developed western democracies is the shrill rationale now, specious as it is. Fund constraints and upcoming judicial pronouncements, of course, make the path ahead unpredictable and challenge-laden. What is difficult to understand is why the alternative proposed by the eminent, insightful losers is not more hi-tech and at least more eco-friendly. Maybe the theme for a mega hackathon by the ECI should be on this conundrum, on the lines organised recently by the Government of India to address problems confronting select Ministries. This is no facile suggestion ~ and not to be confused with the reported dare to tamper the machines ~ as we must get out of the time warp some netas have deliberately attempted to hustle the experts into, with motives which are clearly not above board.
In this scenario, where no major changes appear feasible in the immediate future, it becomes that much more important to ensure that elections are truly instrumental in deepening democracy and not mere supersonic shuttles to unbounded power and ill-gotten pelf. Among the most effective markers of accountability is the periodic Report Card of the elected Government. At the Central level, the Government, ahead of its third anniversary in power, has already asked all Ministers to submit five major achievements that have benefitted people, including three key reforms related to process, policy, functioning, programmes, etc., two striking success stories, substantiated with robust comparative data, reflecting tangible progress made. These are to be compiled in a booklet and published before 26 May, the day the NDA-2 was sworn in. Ministers have also been advised to communicate directly with the people on the positive changes, countering alongside, the negative narratives on less than promised employment generation, alleged threats to freedom of expression and our priceless pluralistic heritage as well as the perceived emboldening of fringe hard line elements, aggressively, often violently, pushing their own fanatical ideological and religious agendas.
In addition, at the recent BJP National Executive meeting in Bhubaneswar, the Prime Minister rolled out the road map for a New India free from socio-economic disparities. Raj nahi, samaj badalna chahiye. Enhanced in translation it means, mere change of power is not enough, total transformation is needed. Politics of performance is how it has been described, girded by the P2 G2 formula of pro-poor, pro-active good governance, with clear timelines of deliverables to coincide with the 75th anniversary of our Independence. His road shows thereafter, e.g. in Gujarat, are more than ample proof that this is a more direct, ready-to-be-answerable brand of democracy at work than we have been witness to in a very long time.
Apart from electoral victories which the party in power has worked on successfully, to sustain the unassailable political will, what is super critical is impeccable performance by the bureaucracy. In the final analysis, they have to shoulder the responsibility of delivering on the electoral promises, undoubtedly with requisite popular support. For the 11th year in a row, Civil Services Day is being celebrated on 20th and 21st April. The theme this year is “Making New India”. This, in fact, goes beyond the electoral promises of 2014 and is an interesting evolution of democratic processes, where dialogue, samvaad on growth and development is ongoing. It no longer is a once-in five-years ritualistic affair. People’s investment in governance is sought to be real and palpable. For this to be meaningful and translate to real transformative experiences on the ground, human capital management in the Government has to be accorded highest priority. It is one of the selected topics for the CSD, which according to the MoS, Personnel, Dr Jitendra Singh, is above all else, a stimulating and inspirational event showcasing excellence in public service.
While there must be occasions such as this to celebrate accomplishments, especially of bright young officers at the cutting edge, Government should also consider institutionalising mechanisms to understand better the “black spots” of governance and move, here too, in mission mode, to address them squarely. The Roundtable organised by ISB ( Indian School of Business) in Delhi on “Administrative Reforms: From Vision to Action”, with six former Cabinet Secretaries as panellists, explored why India does not have an enviable track record of implementing good ideas, in spite of Government taking them on board.
According to a disturbing media report, up to 50 per cent of posts in core sectors of the Government are vacant. These include health, education, judiciary, law enforcement and defence. There is a shortage of around 3000 IAS, IPS and IFS officers, around 22 per cent of the sanctioned strength. When there is under-reach by one wing, overreach by another is inevitable. Judicial overreach looming large over the Executive under- reach was taken up in Parliament during the historic Budget session. It is another matter that it did not lead anywhere , other than providing a platform to vent much pent-up angst.
One of the strategies to get around the inherent and endemic problems governance systems and structures are crucified to, NITI Aayog has come up with new rules that pave the way for lateral entry from outside the Government, which may become a model for other organisations. Career bureaucrats are expected to compete with outside experts for posts at different levels. Salaries have been made competitive. This is not the first such instance.Parameswaran Iyer, who had a long stint with the World Bank after he resigned from the IAS, as a sanitation expert, was brought in last year as Secretary in the Drinking Water and Sanitation Department and has worked wonders in the sector. This is indicative of a definite shift from the present thinking of confining the talent pool inhouse.
It may come as a surprise but it is a step which has been welcomed by many civil servants who are confident hum kisi se kum nahi! More strength to them. To be sure much more needs to be done to shore up the system, sagging and frayed in parts, but the resolve is unequivocal. If the PM is on duty 24/7, others cannot be far behind. It is all about democracy being for the people. You are either part of it or out of it.
The writer is a retired IAS officer and comments on governance issues.