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Ubiquitous

Tuktuk Ghosh | Updated :

Christmas of 2014 had been christened Good Governance Day by the newly-elected NDA Government. Offices had been kept open to observe the occasion with due solemnity. It had caused some consternation and minor annoyance as it clashed with a holiday, which had never been disturbed.

Based on experience or for other undisclosed reasons, 2015 was a comparatively low-key affair. In sharp contrast, 2016 found the Day totally swamped by the unanticipated impact of the curiously termed notebandi of 8th November. It did not find even a passing mention in the Prime Minister’s monthly Mann Ki Baat, with which it happened to coincide. Mainstream media ignored it and it was left to the State Broadcaster to perform a few perfunctory rituals.

Maximum governance and minimum government had been one of the winning planks of the Government back in 2014. Much was made of how it would mark a clean break from the stifling clasp of the past. However, by an amazingly ironical pirouette, the country today finds itself at a historic milestone where maximum governance is on the verge of transmuting seamlessly into ubiquitous governance and ubiquitous government. 

It is not a quibble over mere semantics. Unless there was a major deficit in understanding, this could not have been the promised real agenda. Be that as it may, there is no turning back now. The major takeaway of 8 November and what followed has an inescapable ring of déjà vu to it.

Good Governance Day was a missed opportunity for pause and introspection. As the old adage has it, the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same. The 8th November, tsunami-like, irreversibly altered the lives of 125 crore Indians, all in the course of a public address by the Prime Minister. Almost magical, in a thoroughly unconventional sense! There was simply no choice for them but to endure it.

That there was no choice made it a non- negotiable that the pain of the enforced shock-and-awe therapy had to be made at the very least, moderately bearable and last only for a short period. For the world’s largest functioning democracy, this was a rather low bar of expectation to set in the tangled circumstances.

That the bar remained inadequately met remains uncontested. It is therefore important to attempt to understand whether the evident governance-underperformance was nothing but inevitable, given the strikingly innovative nature of policy crafting involved. This permitted Government policies, rated bold, to sidestep the standard drill of detailed consultation, advice and formal approval on unfamiliar ~ though unconvincing ~ grounds of secrecy. They could justifiably evolve through a novel process of ideation of a select, trusted few.

nce signed, sealed and thus delivered, they would be handed over to the regular bureaucratic apparatus to grapple with and skid along the tough implementation-path. Being fully cognisant that implementation has been the permanent Achilles heel of governance, it is incomprehensible that Government adopted the strategy that it did in times of disruption. The disconnect could not have been more stark and potentially damaging. A double whammy. 

The strategy was on disappointing display again when the policy rationale was given an appealingly futuristic tweak, shifting gear to a cashless, then less-cash and finally on to a digital economy. The tension-laden, breathless scramble by the bureaucracy to just about keep pace with the spate of announcements and clarifications, was so palpable as to be unnerving. Bob Dylan’s winds of change, which was found so endearing at the Global Citizens Festival, were twisting, blowing a bit too fast and threatening to carry many off their feet. That was, of course, no deterrent.

If bank personnel had to face the legitimate ire of customers queued out from their own money, they were given a compensatory, light appreciative pat for their contribution to the mahayagna. If Rules had to be changed 60-odd times in less than 40-odd days, they were appropriately repackaged as sensitivity and responsiveness, at their agile best, never mind that some went back on earlier commitments. If jugaadus, always way ahead of the game, had to be ambushed, country-wide raids were mounted by multiple Government agencies and paramilitary forces, in blazing camera glare.
If people had to suffer, they were commended, in passing, for their stoicism and immense faith in a brave new world. And if there were words of caution or criticism, they were dismissed as deliberate attempts at derailment and sabotage.
The bottom line was Government and more of Government, an overwhelming force that daunted and dwarfed citizens, far beyond the roundly trashed mai-baap syndrome of the post-Independence period. Whether this happened by design or chance remains to be determined. At least in the past 25 years there has been nothing comparable by way of citizen-experience for history to chronicle. 

The countdown to the 50 days the Prime Minister asked for on 8 November has ended. Yet, at every public forum there is a stentorian declaration that the “battle” has only begun and there will be no let-up till victory is achieved. Time-lines and action plans are alluded to. They are tantalisingly subtle, enough to keep the frenetic guessing game on. The 1988 Benami Properties Act, for which Rules have not been framed, is an interesting exception.

Government, having reached where it has, is definitely not contemplating a retreat. The unalloyed acceptance of ubiquitous governance has been taken as a given. A direct hotline has been set up with citizens who are actively encouraged to provide streaming feedback on each other to take the battle forward. In this idyllic scenario, institutional dysfunctionality as of Parliament, is reduced to a nuisance, admittedly useful to flog the Opposition with. Jan Sabha is what finally trumps. Hustling through of the Income Tax Amendment Bill, without any discussion, in a few hours flat in the Winter session washout provides a near perfect cameo.

In this unravelling, it appears paradoxical to stay invested in a bureaucracy, derisively diagnosed on 8 November as “termite-infested”, inseparable from the problem that Government resolved to end. Commentators like Lord Meghnad Desai have called for its upending. The writing on the wall is clear. A radical transformation of the basic character of governance structures is on the drawing board. It may be conjectured that primacy will be accorded to policy implementation agencies dealing with scrutiny, enquiries, investigations, probes, raids, prosecutions and all other functions related to enforcing the strong arm of the State.

In the resultant rebalancing, policy formulation will increasingly become a polished political exercise, with generalist civil servants being kept outside the charmed loop. An act of gentle felling, in slow motion, to soften the loss of inheritance. 
Contributing to the high decibel existential churn is the tirade of the Opposition branding the policy a mega scam and a monumental disaster along with fierce critiques by some of the world’s renowned economists. Most significantly, the constitutional validity of the policy-change itself stands challenged. Hearings will resume in January 2017.
Till then, in good governance we trust!