Beyond rationalisation of Centrally Sponsored Schemes

In August this year, the Government of India approved the recommendations made by the Sub-Group of Chief Ministers on Rationalisation of Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS). The rationalisation plan would first prune the existing 66 CSSs to 28, and then further divide them into three categories – six ‘core of the core’ schemes, 20 core schemes, and two optional schemes. The ‘core of the core’ schemes include the pension schemes, MNREGA, and four umbrella schemes targeting “vulnerable sections” of the population. Further, the flexi-funds component of the CSSs would be increased to 25% for the state governments to programme. Another set of recommendations were made around the modalities of release of funds. For instance, the release of a tranche of funds would no longer be dependent on producing an Utilisation Certificate of the previous instalment; and instead, it would be based on the submission of the instalment preceding the last one.

This is another step in the process of improving the governance of CSS in India, with the specific rationalisation exercise being prompted by the ongoing fiscal reorganisation between the centre and state governments. Starting last year, transfers from the centre to state governments went up by approximately INR 1.8 lakh crores. This was a result of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations which increased the devolution of the centre’s tax receipts to state governments from the prevailing 32% up to 42%. This reduced the ability of the central government to continue funding CSSs at their previous levels, and at the same time, provided state governments a greater measure of flexibility in financing its own priority development schemes.

The recommendations thus far appear to have three main implications. The first one, and the one that is of minor consequence, is the categorisation of schemes into a slightly smaller set of schemes. This is of minor consequence because the schemes remaining in the pruned list actually add up to 50, if you count the items under each of the umbrella schemes.

The second implication comes from recommendations that relate to release of funds appear more significant, since there are several difficulties state governments face in ensuring a smooth flow of funds. Aiding that process is critical to the performance of these schemes. For example, the change in rule regarding the utilisation certificate may not count as a big bang reform, but has huge relevance for transfer of funds to the lower levels of government, and directly affects implementation.

The third implication is that this rationalisation process furthers the extent to which specific governments can be held accountable for delivery of services. In this column, I have previously lamented the phenomenon of ‘mutual denial of accountability’ – when faced with poor outcomes, the centre blames state governments for poor implementation, while the state governments respond by saying that they have no control over how funds are spent. With these reforms, we make a bit of progress.

But the circumstances right now are ripe for a major push forward. One option on the table should be a performance-linked financing model between the centre and the state governments.

For the schemes designated ‘core’, state governments now contribute 40%. This means that it would be possible for state governments to initiate work in the year, and secure funds on the basis of performance. Performance of public schemes should be defined as a combination of immediate results (outputs) and long-term change (outcomes) in key indicators of interest. Given the greater flexibility that state governments have in choosing which components to invest their funds in, a truly performance-linked model can be designed. In time, one expects increases in both the state’s proportional contribution to these schemes, as well as further rationalisation of schemes. Even the current arrangement that have umbrella schemes containing multiple disparate schemes, there is an opportunity to set headline sector targets while avoiding being prescriptive about the way state governments work towards achieving those targets.

There are several benefits in moving to a performance-linked financing model. It put the onus of ensuring delivery on the state governments, and downwards, on the lower tiers as applicable. It also forces state governments to work on ironing out implementation issues, including setting up stronger monitoring systems, empowering lower bureaucracy, etc. The independent monitoring by NITI Aayog could then be used in this arrangement to verify the levels of achievement reported against the said indicators.

What we have so far are a set of gradual incremental steps towards reforming the CSS architecture in India. However, with the backdrop of ‘Team India’, the promise of improvements in implementation, and the stated intent to effect concrete CSS reforms that date back to the previous government, the current extent of reforms seem not only too slow, but also far too little. The current government has tended to use technology as a means to leapfrog implementation challenges, but the basic institutional structure threatens to negate the expected benefits. Enhancing the levels of accountability for the quality of delivery, and pushing accountability down the implementation chain must take top priority in the ongoing reforms process.

Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

Cash as a response to humanitarian distress

In the context of the subsidies regime in India, there is an ongoing debate on the suitability of cash transfers. With the much talked about JAM trinity – the Jan Dhan zero-balance bank accounts, Aadhar and mobile phones, it certainly appears that the state-sponsored welfare system is set to see a significant shift. While this shift may well fall short of being transformative, we could still expect an improvement in how benefits are delivered with reduced leakages to recipients. The use of the JAM model to extend the welfare net and to improve its efficiency implies a decisive move towards cash transfers, and therefore, one may be closer to settling the debate, at least in terms of favoured government policy.

But the argument in favour of cash is not new. I recently came across a 1986 UNU WIDER paper by Amartya Sen where he elegantly outlines five arguments in favour of direct distribution of cash in times of food crises. In this paper Food, Economics and Entitlements (Sen, 1986: UNU Wider WP 1), Sen tackles this question in the context of a famine. First Sen demonstrates how even in contexts where aggregate food output is plentiful, the ability of the poor to acquire this food is a whole different matter. Localised food shortages and famine-like situations can arise due to various reasons – at times when the prices of staples rise sharply, or when the prices of products the poor sell fall sharply. However, this isn’t obvious to policymakers as long as they view food sufficiency through the lens of per-capita food production alone.

When famines manifest themselves, there could be multiple policy response options. Sen talks of direct food distribution as the favoured method in those times. Three decades down the line, food relief continues to be popular in times of distress, even as direct cash transfers (as described above) are gaining ground as a favoured instrument of social welfare policy. Policy responses in these times is meant to enhance the ability of those affected, to ‘acquire’ more food. Both market-based solutions that begin with greater availability of cash, and direct distribution are potential paths to this end.

In this column, I summarise some of Sen’s key arguments, and restrict myself to one side of the debate. From the paper, here are the five advantages in distributing cash in contexts of famine, according to Sen:

  1. First, where state capacity is either weak or misdirected, and as a result, cannot be relied upon to distribute food efficiently, in Sen’s opinion, cash may work better by stimulating markets. In dire humanitarian contexts, resource-strapped governments (national or sub-national) may be resource strapped and not have the ability to organise the task of aggregating, transporting and distributing food.
  2. Second, Sen provides examples of famines (Wollo, 1973; Bangladesh, 1984; Irish famines of the 1840s) where even when food was locally available to begin with, it moved out to other areas due to a fall in local demand. Direct distribution of cash in such contexts will help enhance local demand and therefore, counter-act the external flow of food.
  3. Third, Sen’s claim is that cash distribution could increase demand for local trade and transport, which can set the local economy on the path towards long-term regeneration.
  4. The fourth point, related to the one above, is that people can use cash for productive investment that can stimulate the local economy.
  5. Finally, Sen makes the point that if the affected families received cash transfers, the disruption to their normal economic activities could be minimised. This would help in speedy rehabilitation of households, once the spell of economic distress blows over.

Taken together, this is a compelling argument from Sen on the advantages of using cash transfers in contexts of humanitarian distress that holds true even today. One must question the exact mechanisms through which cash transfers might lead to productive investments, especially in public goods like roads, schools or clinics. But in terms of responding to humanitarian crises, cash transfers should grow to become a prominent response strategy.

Globally, the extent of humanitarian distress continues to mount. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2014 there were 60 million people forcibly displaced due to conflict, who required humanitarian assistance. International aid budgets are stretched and there is an urgent need for more efficient policy interventions. A recent report of a high-level panel organised by the London-based think-tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) makes a strong case for cash transfers in tackling humanitarian disasters. They advocate for every humanitarian intervention to be benchmarked against cash transfers, thereby having to answer the questions ‘why not cash?’ and ‘if not now, when?’

This argument is also salient for India where a large part of the population continues to depend on agriculture, even as agricultural productivity and its share of national income continues to fall. By many accounts, small and marginal holders constitute 85% of India’s farmers. As a previous Mint column pointed out, the only sustainable solution to rural distress over the long run is job creation in manufacturing and services, and barring that, the largely poor and marginalised agrarian population will continue to face periods of economic distress. As Sen reminds us, a hunger crisis can occur even with our steadily increasing agricultural production and our record stockpile of food-grains, as long as our social welfare policy suffers from blind-spots of localised distress.

Cash transfers definitely have their place in the design of effective safety nets for the poor. They are probably neither miracle nor mirage, but should be seen as a work in progress. The political economy of social welfare policies mean that key questions around targeting and the levels of assistance need to be worked out and iteratively modified to suit the emerging context. Ultimately, what we should look forward to is a model of inclusive social policy that can truly operationalise the slogan of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’.

The challenge of Doing Development Differently

I attended the first Doing Development Differently (DDD) workshop organised by the BSC gang at Harvard CID and ODI; read more about the workshop here. See Day 1 summary; and Day 2 summary. Some thoughts, over time:

  1. DDD is the big picture: DDD is about the details and and the beauty of innovation and creativity on the ground. But more importantly, DDD is about the big picture. As the workshop signalled (at least) to me, the battleground for the DDD conspirators/crusaders is the top table, with donors and policymakers; the moneybags, decision-makers and influencers. Expressed in an extremely cliched way, the goal ought to be to facilitate d on the ground by changing the rules of the D game. This makes sense to me. Gathering and influencing activists and local champions is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for real change. Unless those determining the overarching policy environment for localised development work are willing to change their fixed ways, there can can be little progress. At the same time, this workshop definitely missed a trick by not having participants from governments (I am sure they considered this long and hard), which in many middle income countries have come to be all of the above – the moneybags, policy/decision-maker,etc. This is also the way DDD will be able to go beyond aid.
  2. DDD is not new: Much of the conversation was about familiar themes: participation, logframes, being locally embedded, stakeholder analyses, decentralisation, etc; neither are the champions (think-tanks, academics, NGOs and donors) a new species in development. But that shouldn’t be a dampener – we can never have too many good ideas. What will be interesting to follow is the contours of the coalitions DDD is able to draw up; how members find support with and from each other; and eventually, how this shapes the D game. What is new for these actors possibly is some of the language – which references the strategies used by private sector players.   
  3. But, DDD is damn hard and risky: There are plenty of enemies out there – the rigid project structures, the business cases, the impatient donor desk officer, the weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Attempting DDD comes with its risks and in most jobs in the development world (with the possible exception of research-y ones), it is unclear if the rewards at the end of the tunnel outweigh the numerous manholes on the way. So why would anyone try out DDD? And if they did, how will they muster up the personal/institutional capital to do so? For how long can one fight the establishment?
  4. Therefore, be smart:Thinking and Working Politically; Politically Smart, Locally Led – all of these arguably are only a difference of semantics compared to DDD. Creating space within the aid establishment requires forming alliances. Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or the Government of Bihar (once upon a time), I have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for DDD. Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and agreed that it is at the root of many problems, but also encouraged us to think of ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities, perhaps. Some of the younger participants (and I will include myself in this group) found it difficult at times to agree that the “project” is the problem – so thoroughly trained we all are in the mainstream development model. For us then, the idea of finding room for manoeuvre sounds that much more attractive, although that might mean that the revolution will be delayed.
  5. PDIA is not a model (I checked with Matt!) – rather, PDIA is one of the ways of DDD and falls within that tent. I wondered about the abuse of the term PDIA, i.e, if PDIA gets ‘mainstreamed’, everyone and their nephew will produce case studies that mimic the essential ingredients of PDIA. This has happened with ‘participation’ – at one point, everything everywhere was participatory and local. Many a stick was handed over just in time for a telling picture or a stirring case study. Important then, to find a balance between a large inclusive camp and an intellectually elitist one. This is a balance every movement has to strike and in the spirit of PDIA, continually revisit over its lifetime. However, it is important to anticipate this challenge. That the World Bank is so enthusiastic about it should make them wary already – its as clear a sign as any that PDIA and DDD are well on their way to being ‘mainstreamed’. But then, remember the ‘top table’ argument – that is the high stakes DDD game. Also, hopefully, the DDD tribe will ensure that DDD doesn’t get confined to a single model – not a Payment by Results (PbR) one; nor an Embedded Technical Assistance (ETA) one. We truly need to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
  6. DDD is spreading! – The principles of DDD are finding their ways into many donor RfPs. Those proposing projects are being forced to regurgitate the jargon, hopefully in ways that make sense. Do I see donors reaching out to their partners and contractors to make sure they ‘get’ it? Not as much as I would like.

All of this is very exciting. Getting deeper into this has implications for everything: in our personal lives as much as in our professional ones; in how we do and learn. Will stay tuned.

A pro-poor agenda

India’s new Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has just unveiled his union budget – that in addition to continuing the policies of the previous government, pays heed to the poll promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is plenty to analyse in this budget, but I want to draw attention to a possible boring, but vital, agenda for the new government – the pro-poor welfare agenda.

The pro-poor welfare agenda is not about doles – it is about having an effective social safety net for the poor and the vulnerable to enable them to realise their potential. It is not just about free grains or laptops – it also rests on ensuring equal access to quality healthcare and education and equitable access to economic opportunities.

Contrary to popular belief, for the last two years, the UPA government has shrunk the budget, in real terms, for national flagship welfare schemes. In its budget, this government does the same. One can justifiably argue that given the poor implementation of these schemes and the significant under-spend in the states, some of these cuts were actually inconsequential. However, this does signal the easy willingness of governments to look towards savings from welfare schemes as soon as they are under pressure to trim the fiscal deficit.

So what are some of the main considerations that the government should bring into planning its pro-poor welfare policies?

First, the new government should revisit the design of the existing welfare schemes. For instance, it is important to expand the role of state governments in planning, financing and implementing these schemes, in line with the increasingly federal character of the country. Having a former Chief Minister as the Prime Minister is a definite advantage on that count. The new government should also revisit flagship schemes such as MGNREGA to recast it as a scheme that focuses on building community-level productive assets. In other instances, there is a clear need for the government to reformulate the schemes and their reporting to focus on outputs and outcomes and not just on inputs (funds).

Second, it is implementation that the previous government so badly floundered on. Be it poor targeting, plain lack of access or mismanaging the relationship with state-level implementation bodies, there was much that went wrong with the on-ground implementation. As the UPA government continued to legislate without a concern for implementation details or capacity, it made a mockery of the poor, in whose name it ran those legislations.

Third, following from the above, the new government should focus on mundane administrative data. Whether it be on schools, clinics or toilets, birth and death registries or data on other scheme beneficiaries, administrative data is key to monitoring implementation. Better data can help identify and plug leakages; ensure better targeting and delivery; and improve the feedback loop contributing to an improvement in service delivery.

Finally, the new government must work with state governments to encourage grassroots planning and action. Gram Panchayats function with multiple constraints – few staff, limited technical capacity, lack of control over funds, etc. At the same time, there are plenty of examples where Gram Panchayats have led community action through effective implementation of schemes. Clearly, they need to be strengthened further.
Given the spectre of high inflation and the poll promises made to an impatient middle class, this government is bound to be under pressure to deliver. To deliver, especially in these times and to the middle class, seems mostly about the stock exchange indices and fuel prices. In addition to that, the big businesses that brought the current government to power will do all it can to extract its pound of flesh and push back against efforts towards expanding the government’s revenue base – taxes, rents from natural resource allocations and improving administrative capacity. This is a battle the government has to fight continuously.

The new government has the mandate and the space to make a mark with its pro-poor welfare agenda. The achievements of the state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Bihar are highly encouraging and offer important lessons for the central government. This is the time to make a strong push to ensure the new government’s agenda reflects the balance of priorities that face our country and is not hijacked by the single-minded growth hawks. In delivering better programmes more effectively, we must make all sections of society partners in progress, giving them the respect that they deserve.
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A slightly different version of this first appeared on livemint – http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/7EMonEM47ZUgzCqcmCulSM/A-boring-propoor-agenda.html

Why am I against Narendra Modi as Prime Minister?

Written originally eighteen months back, unsurprisingly, every word sounds true. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Fair enough I guess.

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The debate around Narendra Modi has been quite toxic and no one will concede that the other is unbiased. I think we also forget that it is ok for us not to agree on each other’s political choices. In this post, I try to summarise why I am against Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister of my country. For me, the reasons for opposing Modi are compelling enough that I do not find him to be better by comparison to Rahul Gandhi or Mulayam Singh.

Let me try to explain why, and tackle some urban myths along the way:

On riots, people bring up 1984 to counter 2002, but given all the court proceedings and publicly available information, it is impossible for me to believe that Modi wasnt complicit (even if he just stood aside and let his supporters run riot). I also object to the fact that many of us now also casually ignore the belligerent attitudes of Modi and his aides towards groups that oppose them.

But Modi has been exonerated by the Special Investigation Team and other courts? I think we have many examples from contemporary history where court cases have been manipulated and elections have been won by stoking passions and polarising voters…where the victory is technically speaking, democratic, but raises plenty of unresolved questions. For a Modi supporter, a legal and electoral victory on paper is enough; for someone opposing, the manner of victory (on both fronts) is disturbing.

So do I think the Congress is secular? This is a fruitless debate and as I said, to call out something as objectively bad, I do not need relative standards. But to answer the question – Congress is opportunistic and so are parties like Samajwadi Party. This form of opportunism is perhaps worse than a stated right-wing xenophobic nationalistic position that the BJP and its fellow campers (Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, etc) have. But again, real political engagement for us citizens is in refusing to accept that our choices are confined to these.

But Modi always talks of ‘India first’: True, Modi’s speeches and interviews have been about his ‘6 crore Gujarati brothers and sisters’ and ‘India first’. If that is all you hear, you are cherry-picking. What about the countless jibes at Muslims? (Update: There is no sign of such statements abating, going by Modi’s campaign speeches in Bihar)

A ton of data out there suggests that Modi did not transform Gujarat. We ignore longitudinal data on Gujarat when it suits our argument. There is indeed no evidence to believe that Modi (or any non-UPA) government would have fared any better as far as India’s economic growth is concerned. I also disagree with the industrial policy that the Modi govt seems to follow because of its exclusionary nature and its tendency to promote a blind capitalist model where national resources are doled out for private gain and the voices of those affected are ignored (or suppressed). The data on poor development indices in Gujarat in spite of its economic growth only supports that argument. I am deeply uncomfortable that those that support Modi do not find these disturbing.

Add to all this, the coarse language in public; speeches and interviews that focus on personal attacks rather than details of his party’s agenda. I lament the loss of civility in our public discourse and although no political party escapes guilt for this, Modi stands out for his belligerence and consistently disrespectful demeanour.

I thought last week’s India TV chat-show was a disgrace – seemed like we were in the 16th century where the king had to be pleased by loud chants. I am not dismissing popular support or sentiment, but a studio audience is different from a crowd in a maidan. Also, from this unqualified adulation is born complacency, which we cannot afford with someone like Modi. (Update: the multiple stadium performances and carefully choreographed interviews by Amit Shah and Modi have only added to this discomfort)

Because of Modi, the discussion on the streets in the run-up to the 2014 polls has been xenophobic, with deep-seated prejudices coming out and people freely stereotyping ‘others’ that they do not understand. The positioning of the debate as between a state-led model of development and private enterprise-led model of development is entirely misleading. First of all, in a poor country like ours, the state cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of being the protector of rights and justice. Secondly, crony capitalism is good for no one – not even for private enterprises and only leads to rampant corruption. Third, Modi and BJP have been at least as populist as any other dispensation running their respective state governments.

Why hold Modi to a different standard than others? The answer to this is less clear in my mind. But it has something to do with the brazen personality, the personality cult that he is promoting, his tendency for hyperbole and appropriating credit for all things good in Gujarat and his proximity to a position of leadership that I care about. That is why, Modi matters more than Tytler or Kalmadi or Mulayam and Amit Shah matters more than Azam Khan. Also, from a careful reading of the data, it is clear that Modi is no miracle-man. In fact, in this federal polity, no one is. An authoritarian may have fantasies of being the one-man saviour of 1.2 billion people – but this is pure fantasy. It is important to also recognise how perceptions are created by the media and corporations in this day and age. The possibility of a Modi-run has sparked off a bull-run in our stock exchange. While it may be simplistic to say that a high performing stock exchange performance does not put food on the plate of the poor, it is true that the corporate weather-vane is not a good gauge of general prosperity in our country.

Am I (presumptuously) worried about the ‘idea of India’? No. Opposing Modi does not mean being scared that the nation is going to fall apart due to him. I agree that Modi doesn’t have that power, even if he sparks off intolerance and violence towards all opposition (religious minorities or otherwise). So we will not self-destruct if Modi comes to power; neither will we suddenly prosper. Same holds for a Third Front govt or at worst, UPA 3. Revival is going to take time. And while we wait, I guess the battle is about what each of us think are the acceptable compromises to make, and our preferences for who we want as leaders in the interim.

But Modi is a reformed man (and no riots in Gujarat for the last 12 years): If I think someone is morally culpable, the question for me is not about whether he will repeat himself, but about whether he has suffered the consequences of his action (or inaction). Giving him a chance to become the Prime Minister of my country – the effective head of state – is not an option. There are some cardinal sins in state-craft that one cannot be pardoned for.

Finally, there isn’t much reason to sympathise with BJP (and VHP and RSS) due to their ‘civilisational consciousness’ and claims on India’s history, heritage and future – but Modi seems to be dismantling the structures in a party that seemed to have some semblance of collective decisionmaking and inner-party democracy. The BJP prides itself for having a galaxy of successful administrators and strategists, butt is standing around reduced to a one-man party with a bunch of supplicants. This has caused visible cracks within the party, but the lure of power has held them together so far. But for how long? and what if they lose?

So who should you vote for? Vote for the best candidate in your constituency, because that is what our Parliament is meant to be – a set of public representatives who can ‘think national and act local’, as opposed to state legislature members who ‘think local and act local’. If we are lucky, the BJP will be forced to choose another candidate for the top job (if they get a shot at it). Irrespective of the outcome, the choices we make when voting increases our responsibility post the elections when a new government is in place. Irrespective of the government of the day, do not allow prejudice, intolerance and lack of compassion to guide your lives.

The federal roll-back

In my latest column for livemint, I highlight what I think was the most significant aspect of the 2014-15 union budget presented by Finance Minister, P Chidambaram. By announcing the intention to increase the plan assistance to states almost three-fold, the Government of India has made a major move towards empowering state governments and also towards holding them to account for their performance in areas of human development.

In this context, the following now become really critical.
The formula for distribution of funds between states: Not entirely unexpectedly, 2013 saw the war of committees over devising an appropriate funds distribution formula for states. Along with this comes the lobbying for special status by different states in order to gain additional central funds.
 
State treasury systems: In spite of some degree of automation, many state government treasuries are in bad shape. Earlier, state treasuries would capture only the state government funds and not the CSS funds that were channelled through the societies. In the new arrangement, the state treasuries will have to handle a significantly larger volume of funds and transactions. As public finance expert T.R. Raghunandan cautions us, the finance departments in many of our states have a long way to go.
 
Monitoring data: Unearthing government data—physical and financial—is a formidable challenge, as anyone in the business will reveal. Additional funding to the states will mean additional responsibility for data collection and reporting in a transparent and reliable manner.