Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)
Maximum governance, minimum government had been the political slogan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he took office in the last week of May in 2014. As the government goes into the final year if its five-year term, what seems to have happened is that the slogan got mutated into ‘Maximum government, minimum governance’.
What the Prime Minister had in mind was using technology to make citizen-government interaction less cumbersome and less frustrating than it has been in decades. And he seems to have partially succeeded in it, though the jury is out whether the people are satisfied with what the government is doing.
But in political parlance, the phrase ‘maximum governance, minimum government’ remains ambiguous and it could mean many things to many people. For those who believe in post-1991 economic liberalisation, it meant that people should be able to do lead their lives without too much governmental interference, that government should have less to do with the economy, and that the rules that are meant to regulate the citizen’s lives should be minimal.
Though Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) profess to believe in free enterprise and in market economy, they also seem to believe that government initiative and intervention is required to make the country prosperous and powerful. And in their ardour to achieve national glory, they want to force individuals into a regimented scheme, and they can do so only through governmental control of citizens’ lives.
So those who thought that the prime minister who believes in the virtues of a free market economy would also believe that government should be on the margins of civic life are disappointed. The Modi government is an in-your-face-government, for good and for bad. So, in Modi’s mind maximum governance really translates into maximum government. What he meant by ‘minimum government’ is that you have to fill less forms and you do not have wait outside government offices.
The Prime Minister and the BJP loudly proclaim the virtues of federalism. Modi said that the national government should not just mean the Union government but that it should also include state governments; and that it should not just mean the Prime Minister and the Union Cabinet but it should also include state chief ministers and ministers.
That is why, in the NITI Aayog, which had replaced the Planning Commission, the chief ministers are members of the new body. But he is not willing to let the states do their job. The centre is hovering over the state government activities. The laudable Swachh Bharat mission should have been left to the state governments to implement. But it becomes the flagship reform initiative of the Central Government. We still seem to be lingering in the era of five-year plans of the much-hated socialist era. The Planning Commission has gone, but big plans still take the cake.
MyGov, Not Yours
Modi also seemed to be a great believer in citizen-government interface. This can be seen in his MyGov initiative, was launched on July 26, 2014, and the Press Information Bureau (PIB) press release informs that it “had been divided into groups like Clean Ganga, Girl Child Education, Clean India, Skilled India, Digital India, Job Creation. There was an open invitation to the citizens to collaborate in the process of governance through this platform. ‘People’s participation’ is the main plank of the initiative.’ Prime Minister Modi launched PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance And Timely Implementation), which he launched on March 25, 2015, a three-tier system comprising the PMO, secretaries of the Union Government and chief secretaries of the states. They are to meet on the fourth Wednesday of every month through video-conferencing to address people’s grievances. It is government everywhere!
Big Numbers, All The Time
It seems that Modi wants to think big and he wants to do things in a big way. Here is a man who wants to wield power and who takes immense pleasure in doing so. This could be seen in his ecstatic speech at the formal launch of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) on August 28, 2014. He declared, “Never before would insurance companies have issued 1.5 crore accident insurance policies in a single day. Never before in economic history would 1.5 crore bank accounts have been opened in a single day. Never before has the Government of India organised a programme of such a scale – over 77,000 locations – with the participation of so many Chief Ministers, Union ministers, government and bank officials.”
Modi needs big government to implement his big plans. Big government does not really gel with minimum government.
On January 31, 2015, the Prime Minister reviewed PaHaL (Pratyaksha Hastantarit Labh), Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme for LPG subsidy. And the big numbers return again. PaHaL covered 9.75 crore consumers as on January 31, 2015, or 66 per cent of the 15 crore base. Rs 3,654 crore transferred into bank accounts through 9.75 crore transactions. This is big government trying to be as nimble as it is possible for a millipede to be.
The third example of big government getting into the nitty-gritty of everyday life is Prime Minister Modi distributing LED bulbs to save energy and contribute to best global practices to counter the evil effects of climate change. On May 1, 2015, he participated in a function distributing LED bulbs, and there was a convoluted scheme to encourage poor people to buy the energy-saving device. The government was distributing it for an initial payment of Rs 10, and Rs 10 to be collected through the monthly electricity bill for a year. Thus, the LED bulb, whose cost ranges between Rs 350 and Rs 600 at market price, is now being given at Rs 130, and government can sell it at the subsidised price because it buys them in bulk! This is maximum government and minimum governance at its crudest.
The price of the LED bulbs would have gone down, following market laws, if more and more people bought it. The market, and not the government, should have led the way.
Maximum governance cannot mean the launch of maximum government programmes. Unfortunately, this is just what the Modi government did. It takes pride in the number of initiatives / programmes / schemes it has undertaken between June, 2014 and December, 2017. But there is no evidence that it has made a great difference to the daily lives of ordinary people across the country.
The quality of life cannot be improved because Modi wills it. The Union government cannot govern the country at the grassroots level. It will be necessary for the local government, especially the municipalities in the urban, and the panchayats in the rural, areas to have enough funds to improve things. People’s participation on the MyGov platform will not help because the Union government is at the apex of the system. Things have to happen at the ground level, and that cannot be made to happen from the top.
There is not much that this government or the state governments have done to empower the local government, where it matters. An area where government intervention would make a difference is in the field of social infrastructure, that is, schools, universities and hospitals. It seems that the Modi government has not shown much interest in education and public health. The Swachch Bharat mission has a bearing on public health, but the solution lies in upgrading civic facilities.
While there is need for an awareness campaign, the more important issue is for the panchayats and the municipalities to have the wherewithal, especially in terms of finance, to create and upgrade the necessary sanitation facilities in terms of constructing toilets, sewerage systems including sewerage treatment plants, and create a water supply system to back it up.
Water management is the missing element in the Swachch Bharat Mission. Prime Minister Modi has been speaking with an evangelist’s zeal for achieving the goal of Swachch Bharat by 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. He seems to have forgotten that loud fanfare about Swachch Bharat makes for good politics but it is not sufficient to accomplish the task at hand. Swachh Bharat needs technical solutions on the ground. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP can argue, and rightly so, that it would not be possible to downsize the government overnight, and that three-and-half-years in office is too little to bring about significant changes, and that they have made every effort to improve governance. In its attempt to improve governance the Modi government has only managed to increase the role of the government, which is big government by another name.
It is a genuine dilemma for any government and for any political party, and it is not the fault of Modi and the BJP, that they have not been to able to shrink the government.
Politicians are loath to minimize government because that would minimise their power and glory. Ambitious political leaders like Modi want a strong, read big, government so that they can do big things to bring about big changes and leave behind a big legacy.
The issue that raised concerns about big government, the ubiquitous Big Brother keeping a watch over citizens, is the use of Aadhaar. The government argues that it is to be used to identify beneficiaries of government schemes. But it is being extended to cover all other transactions as well, like banking. The government may claim that it would not be policing the citizens, but that it would be a useful tool to track down those evade taxes, indulge in money laundering and in acts of terrorism.
Government surveillance is a double-edged sword. It can be used against the citizen as much as to protect him or her. And it is not just the government that is watching over the individual. Big private corporations are tracking the individual to know his or her tastes, spending habits and credit history. The walls of privacy are being brought down from all sides.
The Modi government is shockingly naïve with regard to futuristic digital world. The prime minister loves technology but the flip side of technology does not draw his attention. E-governance is part of the future vision of Modi’s Digital India initiative. Though Minister for Information Technology (IT) Ravi Shankar Prasad assures about protecting data related to citizens, what he and others do not seem to recognise is the digital dystopia that lurks beneath digital utopia.
Modi government’s zeal to use government to make things happen through digital means leads to the tightening of the government’s grip over the lives of citizens. Digitisation of government leads inexorably to big government. The hazards of digitisation do not figure on the mental horizon of the Modi government. Modi’s defenders are most likely to argue that digitisation is the way forward and Modi did not conjure it, and that the prime minister is grabbing the opportunity thrown up by technology. It is a well known truth that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Modi unknowingly is paving the way for a future nightmare. The only way he can avoid the pitfall is to make the citizen less dependent on government, and to assign government a restricted role in the lives of people.
Minimalism in government should have been Modi’s motto. But he is a man who wants to do too many things in a big way. Big government is the upshot. Maximum government is not a good idea. Communist/socialist states like the former Soviet Union failed because of excessive government. That should serve as a big lesson for the prime minister.
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