Once again, governance let us down

NEW DELHI--Despite strong economic growth, good monsoons, improved relations with Pakistan and America, and a new mood of national self-assuredness, (plus a winning cricket team!) Indians were unwilling to forgive bad governance, and so they threw out one of India's better governments.

My neighbor says she predicted it. When her tap began to run dry this summer just when she went in for a bath, she decided to switch her vote to the Congress Party. The last time she had voted for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) because she thought they would be different. “But they turned out to be no better. And if these rascals don't perform, I'll switch again.” My neighbor has just defined “anti-incumbency”, an ungainly word that Indians have been using for two decades to describe the outcome of their elections. Politicians don't seem to get it, but India's national elections have become municipal elections--and Indians punish incumbent politicians in the only way they know--they don't re-elect them.
¼br /> The ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP did not lose because of the economic reforms, as the Left would have us believe. Nor because the BJP diluted its pro-Hindu nationalist ideology, as some right wing leaders are suggesting. The secularists are also wrong in thinking that the BJP has paid for the terrible killings in Gujarat. Basically, the voter has punished the BJP alliance because they failed to provide day to day governance on the ground. What matters to the rickshaw driver is that cops not take away a sixth of his daily earnings. The farmer wants a clear title to his land without having to bribe the village headman. The sick woman in the slums wants the doctor to be there when she visits the primary health center. Parents want their kids to learn something in a government school. This is how government touches ordinary peoples' lives.

So, where does the illness of governance lie? Why don't employees of India's central, state, and local governments do their jobs?   Is it because labor laws protect them excessively to the point that they no longer feel accountable? To an extent this is true. But I have also seen in our democracy that when politicians don't merely make policy and pronouncements, but set high expectations of performance, and then closely monitor how their policies are executed, bureaucrats perform and perform very well.
¼br /> The sari tragedy in Lucknow was the defining image of this election. Apart from other sadnesses, it brought home to me the colossal managerial ineptness in our public life. Since the supply of saris fell short of demand from the thousands of hopeful women who had gathered there, a good manager would have applied his mind and found a way to distribute them fairly and calmly. Instead, panic and incompetence resulted in the tragic stampede in which more than 20 women died. The nation awaits the enquiry report of Commissioner Lakkha, who interviewed more than 180 eyewitnesses, and it will not be a surprise if he indicts both the police and the organizers for their bungling callousness. I admire Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and I could feel his anguish when he confessed that there were huge areas of darkness while many parts of India were shining.

I have just written a letter congratulating our new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, reminding him of the day he made me tea. I was privileged to visit him at 9 Safdarjang Lane soon after he relinquished office in 1996, and nobody, it seems, was at home—his wife was away, visiting friends, and the servant had gone on a chore. I was deeply moved by the quiet simplicity of his life, and when I told this to my wife, she said, “Are you surprised? He is the only dignitary we know in Delhi who answers his own telephone.”

As the Finance Minister in 1991, Manmohan Singh opened our economy to the world, and unlocked India's astonishing brain power to a degree that even he could not have imagined. His reforms brought the best years in our economic history. And all the governments after his miraculously continued the reforms, albeit slowly. The lesson is that if you consistently reform in one direction, it does add up, and this has made India one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In recent years, Manmohan Singh has been talking about “reforms with a human face”. I find that a troublesome phrase because I think that growth is the best anti-poverty program. The only way to ensure that the poor gain from the fruits of growth is through better schools and better primary health centers. This is how to reforms will take a human face (and not through populist subsidies and leaky poverty programs). However, the reform of education and health is not just about spending more money—the Congress has promised to double spending on health and education as a percent of GDP. It is about making teachers and nurses accountable, so that they will show up and do a good job.

I beseeched the Prime Minister to resist from doing what comes naturally to him as an economist--making policy—and shift his focus to implementation. I asked him to hold his finance minister accountable for the behavior of income tax officers, excise and custom inspectors. Judge his home minister by the attitude of the police. Reward his economic ministers for eliminating red tape. In short, as the chief executive, make bureaucrats accountable, and thus strengthen India's public institutions. Were he to make even a small but perceptible difference in day to day governance he might actually break the “anti-incumbency factor”. If not, he is asking for the return of the BJP in 2009.

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