Historian Ramachandra Guha, in one of his books, points out that India is simultaneously undergoing five dramatic transformations – urban, industrial, national, democratic & social. More people are moving from villages to cities. We are more dependent on industry & services, moving away from agriculture. We are struggling with self-governance, after having been ruled by europeans for a long time. What was before a feudal & deferential political culture is now a participative & combative democracy. A once hierarchical and patriarchal society is now asserting the rights of the individual, women and lower castes. In North America & Europe, these transformations were staggered. Besides, we are astonishingly diverse, differentiated by religion, language, caste and ethnicity, ecology, technology, dress and cuisine. His case is that all these makes India the most interesting country in the world.
While that is true, such diversity also makes India perhaps the most ungovernable country. Our political system, culture & practices may require a big change, if we want those five transformations to ensure an inclusive & faster progress.
Lets consider just two stumbling blocks – coalition governments and power distribution between centre & the states.
Constrained by their very structure, coalition governments cannot move fast. In a bid to win elections, most political parties appeal to certain sections of the society, carve out the electorate for short-term & quick gains, thereby jeopardizing the chances of a majority government. Without a majority government, the chances of swift policy execution are pretty low. When celebrating our diversity, we should keep in mind the same diversity provides excellent breeding grounds for caste-based and other narrow-minded politics, which engender coalition governments, political deadlocks, poor policy execution and slow progress.
The legislative power distribution between the centre & states is laid down by the constitution through the 3 lists – central, state & concurrent. The central government doesn’t have a say on the items on the State List (eg. police & water), which are controlled by the state governments. Items on the concurrent list (eg. electricity, education) are up for grabs, meaning both central & state governments have a say. This power structure has led to a complete breakdown of co-ordination & co-operation between the centre & states. The situation is worsened if the centre & a particular state are governed by different political parties. Inter-state disputes are also common and go one for years without resolution.
For instance, even after six decades of independence, police, water, electricity & education are sectors which have seen little or modest progress. There has been no lack of good policies, ideas & recommendations, but implementation has often been stymied because the centre & states don’t agree. Policies are even rolled back or shelved, wasting time & effort, besides being regressive.
As a nation, we need overarching goals, encompassing both state & central governments. Today, various political parties have their own manifestos, central & state governments have their own policies, some of these contradictory, with different priorities & sub-goals, leading to confusion & stalemate.
Any citizen should be able to state the top 5 goals of the nation. He should have a clear expectation of what will be achieved, by when, and who is responsible & accountable. An illiterate villager in a remote part of Assam should be able to access information on these national goals and its implementation status at the local panchayat.
We need a few basic & well-defined national goals, which are binding on the central and all state governments. Goals which have to be achieved within a definite deadline. Goals which cannot be changed even when parties change at the centre or state. Goals which can be reviewed for any recalibration only with the approval of the President who, with his discretionary powers, can act as a check against the government, but is still directly accountable to the people.
Sounds utopian. But without an overhaul of our political system and overarching national goals, our diversity will continue to be a severe speed breaker.