Good governance as maximum government?

Beyond a point propaganda is a balloon that cannot withstand the pinprick of reality

By Valson Thampu

By and large, we are an imitating, not innovating, nation. Our Five Year Plans are an imitation. Our privatization, technology in every sector, our NGO movements, our education system, our fashions, even our current concern for innovation have all come from elsewhere.

So it did not matter that, when Narendra Modi announced, to hysterical cheers in the course of his address in Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi on February 6, 2013, that his guiding principle in running the country would be, “Minimum government, maximum governance” that it was a barely modified version of what David Thoreau said a century ago, “That government is the best, which governs the least.”

Plagiarism is the least of our worries here. After all, the context in which Modi was speaking, academia, has been rather hospitable to plagiarism. Integrity and innovation are two counts on which Indian academia cannot be indicted. It reflects poorly on the intellectual stature of Delhi University that none of the Dons, not even the hoary professors of political science, recognized the source of the nice-sounding sentiment. Or, if they did, dared not to call it so.

Our concern here is different and far more crucial. It pertains to a gross misunderstanding of democracy that the deployment of the slogan masks. Good governance is not context-free. What may pass for ‘good’ in a monarchic or oligarchic government could be deemed bad in democracy.

It is now nearly three years since Modi ascended the throne. So, it’s time we knew and took a look at how the promise of “maximum governance and minimum government” has played out. Also, the fallacies lurking behind the façade of this hypnotic promise.

It is now chillingly clear that Modi’s idea of good governance is extra-democratic. Good governance is whatever he does to the people. The idea of “maximum governance” implies, in the normal course, the enlargement of the informed participation of the people in shaping and maximizing their welfare. People’s empowerment is the engine of maximum governance.

Modi functions mostly as BJP Prime Minister; one who wields the exalted office with an eye to the fortunes of a party, not of a nation. The fact that nationalism and patriotism are invoked to fetishize that agenda only proves the point. Keen at all times to overwhelm a whole nation with the shock and awe of his personal power, he stays indifferent to unleashing the people power of India.

His glorification of our demographic dividend is solely in the vocabulary of the Market –seeing the oceanic youth pool of India only as servants and raw material to sub-serve wealth generation. They are to be trained from this perspective and to that limited extent.

Should the youth be politically aware and active? Should they be free to think and choose for themselves? Should there be a culture of free-play of diverse insights and opinions? Well, that’s a matter too small to merit his attention and is, hence, left to the adjudication of ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or All India Student Council).

So it comes as no surprise that education is not Modi’s priority. The budgetary allocation for education in 2017-2018 is only 72,394 crore rupees, which falls far short the 6 percent of the GDP that the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) had recommended for the purpose.

Absolutely no new stirring of life or hope has happened in this crucial sector in the three Modi years. If anything, we have regressed. NDA-2 pursues the same anti-people UPA-2 pattern of the State withdrawing from education. It is this abdication of duty towards the people that drives the scheme for granting autonomy to colleges, with the proviso that such institutions can add only self-financing courses so the burden is borne wholly by students.

The hallmark of a leader who wants to minimize government and maximize governance is proactive investment in empowering the people. The perpetuation of their under-development constitutes the rationale for exercising despotic sway over them.

The alibi the British used for delaying our independence was that we were not mature enough to manage our own affairs! Historically, governments everywhere have been despotic toward subjects in proportion to their backwardness. This is seen within India itself. It is comparatively easier to be autocratic in governance in under-developed states; whereas it is suicidal to try it in Kerala. This also explains why Modi appeals little to Keralites.

Parental authority–or domestic government- is maximum in respect of children. It decreases progressively and maximum governance takes over as they become adults. This holds good for the body politic as well.

If there was any doubt about our being hit by maximum government, demonetization dispelled it altogether. It unveiled a prime minister, who wants to drive an entire nation like a herd of cattle. A measure as gigantic and disruptive as that was slapped on 1.3 billion people like a bolt from the blue.

We were ordered to march. And we did, meekly and gratefully. Only an unmitigated despotism, wrote John Stuart Mill, demands that the individual citizen shall obey unconditionally every mandate of persons in authority.

Ironically, the only instance of our coming perilously close to “minimum government” was when gau rakshaks (cow protectors) began to run amok. But that was a ghoulish mockery of governance. It was minimum government all right; but was also maximum non-governance. We are grateful to the PM for curbing it, though the anarchy should have been quelled at the threshold itself.

A sure sign of good governance is the increase of social good. What are the qualities promoted and obtained in citizens? Has Modi bothered to take even a small step toward promoting a national culture undergirded by good work culture, integrity, justice and adequate developmental opportunities for all, and a vibrant sense of contributing to the national cause, unhindered by discrimination, alienation and fragmentation? I’m afraid, this is nowhere on the chessboard of his reckoning.

Minimum government will remain a chimera, so long as the people remain under-developed, socially degraded and ethically challenged. St. Augustine said centuries ago that, given the nature of nations and of men, leaders will preach peace and prepare for war at the same time. Modi walks a parallel line. Promising maximum governance, he inflicts maximum government. A confused nation applauds, not knowing their left hand from the right.

At no point in the history of Independent India –except in that dark spell of national shame called internal Emergency- has government been felt to be so ponderous and disempowering vis-à-vis citizens. Also, no other Union Government has been a one-man show to the extent it is at present.

In UPA-2, we had a cabinet, but no prime minister. In NDA-2, we have a prime minister, but no cabinet. His shadow extents to the operations of the army, winning him credit for even surgical strikes.

As an academic, I worry most about the regimentation -the air of opaqueness, the ambience of fear and un-freedom, the inhibition of spontaneity that is in the air. Why? Because this will strangulate what little capacity for originality and innovation we might still have. Regimentation produces slaves and automatons.

Freedom is the womb of originality. Imposing intellectual, cultural, ideological homogenization on a people is de facto totalitarianism. There is no instance in history of a society escaping degradation, backwardness and unspeakable suffering in the wake of this unnatural imposition.

What needs to be clearly understood, and insisted upon, by all interested in good governance is that attaining it does not depend as much on a benign dictator as on the qualities of the citizens over whom the government is exercised. This is crucial especially in the kind of representative democracy we have, which presents two difficulties right away.

First, we rarely have candidates we can vote for and trust to be our representatives. Legislators no longer represent the people. They belong, body and soul, to parties. People’s representation has become a myth.

Valson Thampu
Second, given our backwardness in education and general awareness, a vast section of the electorate does not understand the significance of the votes they cast. This is further aggravated by the theatricality and rampant electoral malpractices by which voters are hypnotized into voting against their own interests and good sense.

The merit of a democratic government must be judged by its earnestness in raising the general standard of intelligence and civic values in society. Also by its keenness to ensure that the best and wisest among people’s representatives are enlisted to run the government. When the so-called lunatic fringe is planted in the province of governance, we have reasons to be anxious about where we are headed.

NDA-II has hitherto given us a heavy dose of maximum government. If Modi thinks that his personal charisma can mask this bulging reality forever, he is mistaken. Beyond a point propaganda is a balloon that cannot withstand the pinprick of reality. And it could burst sooner than expected.

(Valson Thampu is a former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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