Beyond Narendra Modi: the governance debate

These days, it is impossible to escape the Narendra Modi debate, and the essential simplicity of the argument. So it seems that you must be a Modi supporter if:

You dislike the Congress: In its second innings, the United Progressive Alliance has driven many of us to despair. The sycophancy, scams, misgovernance and the bungled economy are there for all to see. It would seem that any change is welcome at this stage.

You aspire for India to close the gap with China in the growth-stakes: Don’t you want India to be a high-growth economy? Don’t you want the country to top the charts in surveys such as ‘Ease of doing business’? Are you not impressed with the miles of roads and other public infrastructure that Gujarat has laid out? Be it primary education or infant mortality, Gujarat’s record in human development is no mean feat.

You want corruption in the country to end: In politics, often perception matters more than reality. So ignore the minor Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports on Gujarat—the 2G and Coalgate figures are far higher; the ruling Congress party has many more blatantly corrupt members and allies; and Arvind Kejriwal is not a viable alternative!

You disagree with the politics of minorities’ appeasement: This one is too easy!

You desire a strong India in the international arena: The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) gets credit for our nukes, Kargil and Parakram and ignores Kandahar. As the strongest strongman in the BJP, Modi will be anything but infirm when it comes to foreign policy; but first, I wish the BJP would stop grovelling for a US visa for Modi. Not surprisingly, stupidity begets stupidity—so apparently 50 members of Parliament wrote letters to US President Barack Obama asking that Modi not be issued a US visa—just showing what a standing joke India is in the international arena.

Of the points made above, depending on where you stand, the merits of some are plainly obvious, some you would deny and others, you may choose to debate. The growth and development data are there for all to see. Yet, the question remains—is Modi the best that we can do? The answer to this cannot be ‘Yes’. Settling for Modi exposes our inability to put up a sustained demand for a better government; for good change. So before we settle for Modi, here are some key governance questions we should worry about:

A trade-off between growth and justice? This in a sense is the unfortunate debate between growth and justice; a debate over how one thinks this country should be governed. I wish we did not have to debate this in our country, but we are in a situation where opposing camps are pitting riot against riot and ban against ban using every forum available to them—studio, stage and tweets. This is not a debate fit for a mature democracy. Even the apparent on-ground peace and progress in Gujarat hides an uneasy tension between communities. This is also true for many other parts of the country and we need leadership that assuages these differences and not widens them.

A one-man change-agent: A lot of the Modi mania stems from a desperate cry for change. On that note, do you remember the two big recent ‘change-agents’—Akhilesh Yadav and (more spectacularly) Mamata Banerjee? More than anything else, Akhilesh and Mamata expose the folly of putting all our hopes on one golden egg in the basket! If you need more evidence, you only have to think back to the day Manmohan Singh took over as Prime Minister, when the nation hoped that the honest, intelligent economist will steer our country to glory—and how soon those hopes died! As long as we acknowledge that governance is more than rousing speeches, we have to acknowledge that it will take much more than Modi alone to rule this country.

Selective patronage of institutions: The administrative efficiency of Modi means that the bureaucracy in the state is empowered. At the same time, inconvenient institutions such as the courts, CAG or Lok Ayukta are either ignored or bullied for political gains. Even an autonomous and empowered bureaucracy at the cost of sound political leadership does not provide the template for ruling India. It may be possible to administer a state efficiently sidelining ministers and working with hand-picked bureaucrats, but there is no way this can be done at the national level.

A democracy sans dissent: It is not only the opposition within the Gujarat BJP and the opposition in the state that has been suppressed; the Modi machine seems intent on shutting down all forms of citizens’ protests as well. If a leader is known by the quality of his supporters, Modi himself should be ashamed of his so-called followers that trawl the online world, spewing the choicest of abuse at anyone who debates Modi or his ideas. The recent furore over Amartya Sen’s ideas is a fine example of the degenerating political debate over Modi.

The purpose of this column is to insist that there is a debate over Narendra Modi that goes beyond growth rates and investment targets. To my mind, there are troubling governance questions that we need to keep asking, if only to keep our representatives on their toes. Let no one take us and our electoral choices for granted. Finally, this is also an appeal for a rational debate!

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This is my last livemint column

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