Mani-Talk: 'Governance, Modiji, Is About Making Choices'

Published: June 12, 2014 19:38 IST
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

The Constitution obliges the President to read out whatever the government dishes up as the "President's Address". For a man as intelligent, sensitive and experienced as the present President, it must have been painfully embarrassing to be forever associated with the tissue of empty slogan-mongering and meaningless alliteration ("Democracy, Demography, Demand" - what does it mean?) served to him by the incoming Modi government. Tired clichés, pinched from electoral platforms, were recycled as "policy", and continuity of government, the corner-stone of the democratic process, was given the go-by as programmes that have been underway for decades were warmed up and put on the table as fresh new ideas. The dilemmas of governance were conveniently ignored in the rhetoric of what they choose to call "good governance".

It will boomerang on them as they get down to real business. "Cooperative federalism" has already met its first test and failed. Jayalalithaa met Modi and demanded the immediate establishment of the Cauvery Management Board mandated by the Supreme Court. The Karnataka BJP, led by Anantha Kumar, who had worsted Nandan Nilekani in the recent election, rubbished the idea. Modi is caught in a bind - a bind with which he is going to get increasingly familiar as he learns that his job as Prime Minister is, for the most part, the reconciling of the irresistible force of one state government with the immoveable object of the other.

Why would the Centre wish to interfere in a matter that falls exclusively within the domain of a state government or when rival state governments settle matters among themselves? Mia Bibi Razi Toh Kya Karega Qazi? But the centre is forced to intervene, positively or negatively, when Mayawati demands President's Rule in UP and CM Akhilesh Yadav hides behind the Supreme Court's Bommai judgement and the Sarkaria Commission's criteria for action under Article 356. The job of the Union government is not to usurp state functions, as Modi claims was being done, but to be the impartial, benevolent umpire in inter-State disputes. Modi can today earn brownie points by proclaiming state autonomy, but governance from Delhi, he will soon discover, is principally about finding the middle path between States' rights and the Centre's over-riding obligation to maintain the Union of India.

He claimed in his speech in the Rajya Sabha to know everything about the requirements of the States as he had served as Chief Minister of Gujarat. But he was far from being the only ex-CM present in the House; had he been less blinded by his own arrogance, he would have seen the skepticism on the faces of such long-experienced former Chief Ministers as the Leader of the Opposition, Ghulam Nabi Azad (J&K), Digvijaya Singh (MP) and A.K. Antony (Kerala), not to mention Mayawati (UP) and numerous others in the other House (Amrinder of Punjab, Nephiu Rio of Nagaland, and ex-PM Gowda of Karnataka) all of whom have been at logger heads with neighbouring states and at the receiving end of Central governments not of their hue.

Moreover, while Modi and his colleagues have sworn allegiance to the Constitution but a fortnight ago, they seem to have already forgotten that Dr Ambedkar never talked of "cooperative federalism" (whatever that might mean) but of India as a "Union of States with federal features". That constitutional responsibility can never be abandoned by the Centre lest there be the outbreak in India of the equivalent of the American Civil War (1861-1865) - a precedent to which the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations draws pointed attention.

The President's Address then promises all things to all persons: there is not a section of the population that is not "prioritised" in "Ek Bharat-Shreshta Bharat" - big business, small business, farmers, farm labour, the poor, the rich, the working class, the regions, backward and prosperous, etc, etc - as if Modi were Santa Claus and the President's Address a Christmas gift.

Governance, Modiji, is about making choices. The choices you made in Gujarat were choices explicitly in favour of the mega-rich in land acquisition to the detriment of the hapless tribals; land allotment that grossly discriminated against the MSMEs; massive financial assistance to the fat cats who least needed it; environmental clearance without due diligence - and, in return, all of these billionaires and trillionaires most generously opened their purses for your staggeringly expensive election campaign. Thus, while Gujarat retained its ranking as one of the faster-growing states, a rank it has held ever since its creation in 1960, indeed as region since pre-Independence days (remember the East India Company established itself in Surat in 1600), Modi's exertions on behalf of the poor have left the state stagnating far below that rank on all human development indices.

Economic policy is about choices and the balancing of competing interests: the poor cannot get all that is promised by Gandhiji's 150th birth anniversary without restraining the access of the rich to a dominant share of the available cake. And it is they and the vested interests they represent that have always loudly resented as "give-aways" whatever is reserved for poverty alleviation (oops, I mean, of course, "poverty elimination", ha, ha) and human resource development.

It is comical for the new government to strut around saying it will consult the states on all matters of policy. When, pray, has this not been done - most conspicuously in the case of the Goods and Services Tax and coal block allocations? Which were the states that objected? Almost always the BJP states.

The problem is that if every state demands "special status" and regards it as grossly discriminatory if that status is not granted, little or nothing remains in the kitty for everyone else. The argument between "stimulus" and "subsidies" cannot be papered over either. Every paisa taken from "subsidies" for the poor augments "stimulus" for the rich, and vice-versa. How can time-bound "poverty elimination" be the priority if stimulated private sector growth is also to be the priority?

To strike the right balance, Nehru established the Planning Commission. Rumour has it that Modi plans to abolish or drastically alter or at least change the name of the Planning Commission, an organ set up by governmental decree, perhaps by establishing the Finance Commission, a statutory Constitutional body, as a permanent institution, as he appeared to hint at in his reply to the debate in the Rajya Sabha. But while that will detract and distract the Finance Commission from its constitutional duties, in and of itself it will not resolve the dilemmas that are the stuff of governance in Delhi.

Moreover, as Anand Sharma said, the foreign policy orientation of the President's Address is "fractured", with no mention of Asean, Africa, West Asia or Latin America. And even on neighbourhood policy, the government will soon learn that there are dilemmas to be resolved between making impossible demands on Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism as the pre-condition and undertaking dispute resolution through dialogue. He will also discover that "cooperative federalism" gives West Bengal and Tamil Nadu veto powers in regional South Asian policy.

It has been a pathetic beginning. It will lead to a pathetic end.

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