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India in Transition

And Now to Govern: Seize the Day

Devesh Kapur
May 24, 2009

Now that a new government with a more stable mandate is poised to assume power, it needs to start thinking of how it will address the many challenges facing the country. In many ways, the last government rode a streak of good luck, especially the fair winds blowing from the global economy as well as the Indian Ocean that underpinned a modest recovery in India’s agriculture. Regrettably however, the previous government postponed, and in some cases indeed worsened, the key institutional challenges facing the country. Some were understandably the result of a fractured mandate and the exigencies of running an unwieldy coalition government. Others had to do with the nature of the prime minister’s authority within his own party. Fortunately, this time around, the government should not be hobbled by these handicaps.

A good starting point for the direction of change for this government has to be the weaknesses and failures in its last stint. Within the party, the government relied too heavily on old horses and retainers, whose performance in critical ministries was anemic (Home) if not downright destructive (HRD). Even in a short time, replacing the Home Minister – after the outcry following the Mumbai attacks – has brought new life to that crucial ministry. This was not the case in HRD, whose actions hugely politicized and repeatedly dragged the government into unnecessary controversies while jeopardizing the future of the country’s most precious resource: its young people.

A critical comparative advantage of the Congress, relative to other parties, is that it has a number of young parliamentarians who can be groomed for leadership positions. Given the country’s demographics and indeed the election of younger members in this Lok Sabha, this election represents a historical opportunity to induct younger members, not just in the ministries, but in the host of commissions and committees that are an essential lubricant of institutional change. The last time around, the government stuffed these bodies with retirees and to return favors to coalition partners, a sure predictor that nothing new would come out of them. If it has any interest in change and securing its long-term future, the government needs to induct new blood in all organs of the Indian state.

A second key issue that needs immediate attention stems from the poor performance of ministries represented by some of its coalition partners, especially from the state of Tamil Nadu. Allowing one party to have a monopoly over a specific ministry over successive governments, despite poor performance, would be the absolutely wrong signal to send. This time around, the Congress will be bargaining from a position of strength, and the prime minister needs to establish his authority early on, demonstrating that ministries are not zamindaris with little regard to the public good.

The third issue concerns how this government deals with key state institutions. The strongest signal of its commitment to restoring the health of the country’s institutions will be its choice of appointments to autonomous government bodies, be they regulatory institutions or university vice chancellors. The manner in which the HRD ministry hurriedly rammed home the appointment of vice-chancellors to the new central universities, thereby ensuring that these institutions are handicapped from birth, is an example of just how much damage can be done by a politicized appointment process.

But appointments are merely one step on the road to rejuvenate the country’s vital public institutions. The reality is that a whole host of politically contentious and institutional changes need to take place. For instance, moneyed elites have been playing an increasingly important role in Indian elections – this election was marked by a big jump in the number of businessman entering the political fray. When politicians have strong business interests and businesses have strong political interests, there is a risk of emerging crony capitalism. According to an analysis of affidavits filed by candidates by National Election Watch (NEW), while 154 MPs in the previous Lok Sabha had assets exceeding ten million rupees, this time the number has almost doubled to three hundred. The government needs to pass legislation prohibiting MPs from occupying positions that pose a clear conflict of interest with their personal business interests, such as Parliamentary committees and ministries. In doing so, the prime minister can deflect pressure from coalition partners or even his own party to accommodate particular individuals in specific ministries.

During its last stint, the UPA government recognized the importance of rebuilding a decrepit state machinery that is poorly responsive to current needs, and it responded by setting up the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. Sadly, the Commission’s impact was negligible, which was hardly surprising considering the poor quality of its recommendations and the lack of attention to this issue. Virtually all issues that the common man faces, especially the poor quality of public services such as education, health, law and order, and basic infrastructure, require state machinery that has the competency and incentives to deliver them effectively. A weak and venal public administration is the Achilles heel of the Indian state; unless its performance improves, the scores of projects and programs to reach India’s poor will continue to underperform.

Rejuvenating the state machinery must also include reforms in the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial arms of the state. Budgetary allocations for all three need to be sharply increased, both to increase manpower in some of the most undermanned branches of government, as well as funding for much needed training and infrastructure. However, these will go only so far in the absence of institutional changes, particularly those providing for greater autonomy. Over the years, the need to create an independent, well-staffed federal police force that is not subject to partisan manipulation has become painfully obvious. The actions of the CBI in the last government were so problematic that it became cynically known as the Congress Bureau of Investigation. This deep distrust in a vital government agency has a deeply corrosive impact on trust and reputation of the India state. NEW data indicates that compared to 2004, the number of MPs with criminal records in the newly constituted Lok Sabha has increased by 17 percent and those with serious criminal records by nearly 31 percent – figures that do not exactly inspire confidence in that apex body, Parliament. However, checking the criminalization of Indian politics requires not just successful investigation, but a robust prosecutorial capability and a judicial system that reaches a verdict in human time not geological time. All three need to be addressed simultaneously, since the chain of law and order is only as strong as its weakest link.

The list of priorities for the new government is potentially endless. But I would add one last institutional change: state reorganization that entails breaking up the largest states, beginning with Uttar Pradesh. The state is simply too large as a single sub-national unit. Its politics and economy have a very large impact on the country and much of it is not very positive. In the near future, other large states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal need to be split as well. But for now, breaking Uttar Pradesh into three parts is politically feasible if the Congress applies its mind to it – and it is one change that will be good for the Congress, good for India, and especially good for nearly 180 million people.

Prof. Devesh Kapur is the Director of CASI and Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India, University of Pennsylvania.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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