The present government has been in the office for less than three months, yet the expectations of the citizens are mounting. The political environment that is taking shape today is vastly different from the one which was prevalent at the time of the former governments. The people, then, had been largely uncritical and resigned to political and social fatalism. Today, however, more is less, and this marks the beginning of a new change in Indian politics. No matter how much the government promises or achieves, it will always be kept on tenterhooks by an ever more conscientious public. This is a part of a wider change that is shaping afresh the political system and is not limited to any particular government.
In the present context, now that we are past the stage of promises and vision by the new government, implementation and delivery have become the watch-words through which the government will be assessed by the country. However, implementation is only one of the elements of the much deeper changes that are now expected of the government.
In order to understand what these changes should be, it is important to understand why we need changes in the first place. It is not in order to prove or please the people that implementation and delivery by the government should be emphasized urgently. True democratic accountability lies not in accommodation of demands of various sections of society, but in transparency to the national ideals and principles.
Thus, the government should be judged in its future course of action, not on the basis of whether it is seen to be pleasing the people, but on how much it is traversing the path of fulfillment of national ideals.
National ideals: Imperatives before us
The idea of what should constitute our national ideals does not come across as very contentious. No one would deny the necessity of ideals such as democracy, equality, justice and freedom, which can be manifested through various processes such as economic growth, a transparent political system and a progressive social life. However, these words and ideals can be misleading, precisely because they can be appropriated by anyone to justify any course of action or policy. Every democratic government declares commitment to these goals and strives towards policies that can fulfill them. Some regimes, such as the Nehruvian state, are even sometimes genuinely idealistic in this respect. Yet our history since Independence stands witness to the abject failure of such an approach.
Therefore, how the fulfillment of these ideals is to proceed should be clarified at the outset. Here it is important to emphasize that these are such national ideals which cannot be founded on the mere fulfillment of material conditions alone. Can the ideal of equality be achieved by simply engaging in customary social service or NGO-type practices or by the governmental allocation of minimum material benefits such as subsidies? Expressed in this way, it seems absurd to think that there can ever be even a remote connection between the two. And yet, our whole political economy is based on such assumptions and we are reduced to a vicious self-fulfilling circle.
If our ideals are high, then the means we use to achieve them should also be high. That is why the root of our dealing with the present problems afflicting our nation lies in a collective national consciousness of these issues. The material problems that we face today can only be resolved within such a framework. And this is precisely what the governments in the past have failed even to perceive. Certainly, it is not the main role of the government to cultivate such a consciousness. However, the government still has a critical task in this respect. Governmental machinery is the center-point of any political culture, and it is only in the realm of politics that people come together as a nation. Therefore, the government needs to provide the enabling cultural and institutional conditions which can foster such a consciousness collectively.
Assessing the Modi government
In this respect, the current Modi government is, albeit tentatively, treading in the right direction. The Prime Minister’s Independence Day address has infused a fresh aspirational attitude among the people. A few weeks earlier, the general disillusionment which is never too far from the surface, had begun to take hold of the people. No substantial material benefits were visible and important legislations, such as the Insurance Bill, appeared stuck in the Rajya Sabha for good. It was not clear how the government would proceed in implementing the grand vision that it had laid down for the country.
However, the Prime Minister’s Independence Day address has considerably allayed the doubts in this regard. The various analyses of the PM’s speech have reserved judgments about the implementation of the laudable ideas expressed in the address. Yet, the address laid the broad lines along which the implementation could proceed. Some of the major issues that the PM raised included:
First, he announced the disbanding of the Planning Commission. This was a landmark announcement as it acknowledges the need to break away from relics of the past and not assign sanctity to defunct institutions. It marks a clear ideological as well as policy break from the elements that have persisted since the Nehruvian era.
Second, emphasizing the all-inclusive nature of the new government, the PM also stressed that all forms of divisive communal violence be ceased for 10 years and the results in terms of social returns to our country will be substantial.
Third, he laid the greatest emphasis on the issue of women’s empowerment. Boldly taking up the mounting issue of the mounting rape cases in the country, his most significant appeal to the people was to change their mindset towards gender and question their sons instead of daughters.
Fourth, the PM also laid great stress on the issue of public sanitation. He set a target of constructing separate toilets for girls in public schools, in order to put a stop to the deteriorating rate of girls’ enrolment in schools.
Fifth, he reiterated the ‘make in India’ message to encourage domestic manufacturing. His message was to sell in the countries of the world, but manufacture here. This signaled a policy break from the previous regimes, which never focused on the structural issues afflicting the Indian economy, of which manufacturing has been an important, long-neglected component.
Sixth, his ‘zero defect, zero effect’ policy found resonance with the environmental issues and good quality manufacturing. This will go some way in allaying doubts about the new government’s commitment to the environment.
Seventh, he called for bureaucratic changes, especially in Delhi, where the unbridled power of the bureaucrats led to a functioning of ‘parallel governments’, with everyone having his own ‘fiefdom’.
Eighth, reiterating his foreign policy, he focused on a united role for South Asia in ending poverty in the subcontinent. Breaking away from the norm of his predecessors, he did not attack Pakistan. He even took the example of Nepali youth who had moved away from Maoism and violence; this was an influential diplomatic policy gesture.
Finally, he announced the scheme of Jan Dhan Yojana to encourage financial inclusion in India. Under this scheme, select households will use RuPay cards, instead of VISA or MasterCard, and will also get a substantial insurance cover.
The key issues flagged in the vision laid out by the PM certainly cannot be said to contain any minute details regarding policy implementation. Neither are they extraordinary issues that we are unaware of. What is, then, the significance of the PM’s address? Here, it should be remembered that the issues of both implementation and grandness of vision become secondary to the foremost need of the hour, that is, laying down the foundation through which such a vision can be effectualised; for, without a sound foundation, any implementation will be short-lived. It is here that PM Modi is at his best possible advantage.
The issues that he raised, irrespective of how idealistic or commonplace they were, are likely to have a much more effective impact on the people than if they had been raised by any other leader. For instance, the PM broke away from the general Independence Day convention when he spoke of domestic issues like sanitation and upbringing of boys and girls at home. This nationalization of domestic issues is likely to have a much greater impact now. Similarly, when the PM recommends a 10-year moratorium on communal violence, it gains more significance. Any other leader saying this would have simply been dismissed as belonging to the so-called secular or Leftist group. This last point is particularly significant, as it also shows the increasing irrelevance of ideology in Indian society, as even the common man is able to recognize what is the façade of ideology.
At the present stage, it is the impact that the current leadership generates that matters the most. If the impact fails, then no effective implementation or a grand vision can work, since this is a democracy that we are talking about. And if the impact succeeds then nothing can stop the policy implementation, since it is only through such an impact that the enabling conditions for people’s participation can be generated. Once such enabling conditions are in place, the government will be forced to deliver, there would be no other alternative. And the new government is currently moving in this direction.