Millennium Post

Elusive consensus for development

All politics is an assertion of solutions which impact the widest public good and necessarily must be compatible with the national good. By definition, therefore, political leadership is the ability to negotiate solutions, through intelligent dissent, sometimes through mischievous and motivated dissent and mostly through misinformed or uninformed objections. Brexit is an outstanding example of the failure of the political leadership to analyse in public domain, the consequences of staying in or leaving the Union. Hence, a huge volume of misinformed guesswork decided the choices people made. The outcome now must be managed as best as the situation will allow. If we look at the history of the consequences of unilateral actions, in the national and international contexts, each unilateral action begets a combination of unilateral reactions ending in chaos. The US is a prime example of unilateralism resulting in a lasting disorder in the Middle East. They used the weapon of mass “misinformation” and doctored intelligence to convince their electorate of the righteousness of their cause.

Nations, communities, religious sects are in conflict for their failure to build a consensus. Indeed, the opposite has become their perceived mandate, first to exaggerate the threats to their existence and then call the faithful to stick together, through armed brotherhoods and media abettors. But no one can control the scale of the conflict and whether at the personal level or the political level, a conflict will get out of hand. It is a lesson always forgotten. Armed conflicts, even more so, cannot be fitted into the desired size, as its momentum keeps it alive. 

In our context, divisions in interests and aspirations have led to conflicts, collision of identities and competing demands, so much so, that our leadership, political, and intellectual have not even spelt out a clear set of national ambitions and the ideological support for those objectives. It is also true, perhaps more so, that many of our conflicts are self-induced and in many cases, the ebb and flow of their intensity are attempted to be politically managed. It is, without a doubt, the direct consequence of the slide in the values of our societal equations. This downfall has made politics and political office a part of asset acquisition and asset creation and not public service. How does a seeker of elected public office persuade the voter to prefer him or her by an ideological position? Centrist, <g data-gr-id="99">right</g> of centre, left of centre, or ultras, who understands and votes on this basis? This situation only gets aggravated because we are a “supply scarce” economy.

India is 1.20 billion strong now, with 29 states and seven Union Territories. There is a Constitutional division of powers, as to what is the Centre’s domain and what belongs to the states. Is a consensus possible in the current structure of governance paradigms? In any case, what are the defined parameters of the kind of a consensus for development we want? Every framework, we contemplate, will attract political overtones. Nevertheless, we must state that India’s ambition is to be a country governed by law, which provides the people with a facilitative and unintrusive regulatory framework for the people to pursue their goals.

The macro view is the easy part. There is a lot of talk about corruption, misgovernance and the whole lot of politics, politicians, bureaucracy and the often voiced sentiment that we are in the swamps. We have to go micro, to the basic administrative entity, which is the village and the district. India will not be governed or administered in the states. It will be managed by the district and not in the state capitals. The state capital can have the Home and Finance departments, while all other powers are vested with the District Investment Boards. The political and the bureaucratic combine have to govern from the district headquarters with full and empowered set-ups. Therefore, the first layer of the consensus has to be on the restructuring of the administrative framework. Ideal also would be if the instruments of delivery are re-modelled.

Microwork is about detail, about territorial ambitions and local needs and their future. So a consensus on the hierarchy of requirements has to happen here. The investment decisions and the implementation have to be here. The compilation work can be in the state capital for all the districts and all the states, in the national capital. Resource allocation will have to be done accordingly. The methodology needs a consensus of politics. It is obvious that the society is moving towards freedoms, but politics stands in the way. Who will eat what, who will wear what, who will worship when and who are the most superfluous questions and to raise them as national issues are to keep the country <g data-gr-id="96"><g data-gr-id="97">backward</g>.</g> Our problem is how to mobilise the emotional bond with the voter. This is a hard question to answer. In our context, “<g data-gr-id="91">netagiri</g>”, the equivalent of “leadership” is about getting “my job” done through the layers of the governmental system. The “<g data-gr-id="93">neta</g>” or the leader reciprocates in order of his preferred <g data-gr-id="92">clans</g>, who get “bonded” into his patronage through layers of intermediaries. So where is the scope for consensus?

The answer is perhaps to be found only after an election. Even though the winners have not yet shown any grace to the losers, but winners want to stay as winners and will have to lead the consensus building. Our external affairs and economy rest on a foundational consensus of broad ambitions. As there are many complex externalities at work, the template of our responses moves reasonably well and have a public backing. Yes, the ways and means of achieving these ends are frequently contested. And this again gets settled through the consensus, even though it is time-consuming. This is the cost of democracy, but with some collective determination, this can be brought within reflective markers. 

The real problem is the adverse consensus that has marred the forward trajectory of the country. Almost all political and civil services combine are seem averse to de-regulation. The state assets-turned-liabilities are bleeding the current revenues of both the Centre and the states, yet the mindset so rigidly continues to believe that state control and management can turn things around. We need a regimen and not a regime. Education, public health, defence supplies, municipal governance, public services, etc., are crying for the private sector money and role. Governments are ready for their money, but only for a subordinate role and we, therefore, have a contradiction in terms. This is a challenge. Yes, time is a solution, but the nation does not have that kind of a time and ability to incur disproportionate costs. Graded increments of attractions do not tempt any investor because of lack of certainty. 

Our decision makers must realise that the country growth pace is being beaten by increasing volumes of demands and the supply side constraints are adding to the national misery. Growth rates of 7.2 percent or 8 percent are de facto. The days of political management of the demand side are over. No matter how much the media is “cajoled”, the people’s sense of need is acute. Not even one person is impressed by the advertisements listing the government’s achievement. There is also a misplaced complacency that the anxiety to move faster and better is only a Delhi phenomenon or an English media creation. No, not even one life lost to poverty or starvation is a cost and the nation must pay that price. It is an all India anxiety, and we are fortunate that it is subdued in expression.

The billion dollar question is: Can we fix it? Development is a relay race and not a hundred yard dash. The present breed of leadership has to navigate the consensus building as there is no Mahatma Gandhi in sight, far or near, anywhere.

(The writer is a former Director, India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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