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Mihir S Sharma: Merry Good Governance Day

I greet you all on the festive occasion of Good Governance Day!

This great festival is a time of good cheer and pleasant memories, and it is, of course, customary at this time to count our many blessings; and this year, of course, we have one great blessing, the presence of Narendra Modi at 7 Race Course Road, turning this iteration of Good Governance Day into something altogether special.

It has been noted that some mischief-makers and proselytisers have chosen to claim that Good Governance Day is not, in fact, a traditional Indian holiday – my apologies, a traditional “Indic” holiday – and is, in fact, a silly idea that can be traced back to a human resources development ministry that thinks it has completely solved India’s skill crisis and is, therefore, sending out circulars to schools telling them to propagate party propaganda on school holidays and not just on working days. This is vicious and motivated calumny. Good Governance Day is as old as our civilisation — which is, of course, the world’s oldest, and proudly unchanged since the 3rd millennium BC. It is refreshing to note that, even in this degenerate age, some parts of the country respect the old folk rites — in Hyderabad, small groups of people went out into their neighbourhood to spread joy through the ancient tradition of beating up the carol-singers, for example. And over in Chhattisgarh the good people of the Good Governance Parishad, or VHP for short, have revived the fine practice of attacking the evil foreign spirit known as “Santa”, which according to ancient belief arrives in the run-up to Good Governance Day bearing welfarist dole for small children.

As I said, let us count our blessings this Good Governance Day. And, to be serious for a moment, the presence of Narendra Modi has indeed been something of a blessing in some areas. Modi is, after all, the most popular politician in history in terms of sheer numbers; and he is not afraid to use his enormous moral stature, however inexplicable it may be to those with a working memory. The biggest and most positive change, to my mind, has to be the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This festive season, look around the average market in Delhi, say, and you’ll see it certainly look cleaner. The efforts of goodness knows how many genuine volunteers – as opposed to those merely seeking photo-ops that border on the comical – have certainly made a difference. And even if Modi’s emphasis on cleanliness means that some people pause to at least look around for a dustbin before littering, it will have made a major start.

The problem is, however, that encouraging volunteerism is not the same as improving governance. People cannot be expected to give up their weekends forever. Instead, we have to take advantage of these months of enthusiasm that reduce the task to doable proportions, and see how government can improve and do the job itself. What are Modi’s plans for that second, sustainable step? We are so intoxicated with thought that we have a Strong Leader that we have forgotten governance is about governing — which, in turn, is not just about leading.

There are models for the next step. I write this from Kolkata – which celebrates Good Governance Day with the most enthusiasm in India, in memory of the Raj, which is when we last had Good Governance. Kolkata has a terrible and somewhat unfair reputation for filth. But it looks cleaner every time I come here. Part of the reason is little white notes that have gone up on various doors in even the poorest parts of my neighbourhood. Signed by the assistant borough director of the municipal corporation, the notice warns the household or establishment behind the door that the “Ward Conservancy Overseer” has reported them for leaving garbage or building refuse on the pavement “violating the notification regarding the new house-to-house collection system”, and that they would be prosecuted.

Local work like this can turn a city around. Kolkata doesn’t just look cleaner – the dirty canals-cum-garbage dumps that run alongside the main airport road have become lovely little parks – but is noticeably vibrant. There are new skyscrapers coming up everywhere, including a Marriott near Park Circus that seems to have been built in a few months, rendering the gracious low-slung Sonar Bangla next door a relic of an earlier age, although the ITC hotel is just a decade or so old. New air-conditioned JNNURM buses, crowded in spite of fares that start at Rs 30, are on the streets – some of them, sponsored by Airtel, seem to offer Wi-fi.

Intriguingly, this being Kolkata, aesthetics come first. In Rajarhat New Town, the public art goes up before the malls. Not all of it is great — two giant, angry owls at one intersection will give me nightmares. But it’s there. Thirty men were putting up a metal thing that called itself an “iconic structure” at a roundabout on Friday. Astonishingly, all of them were working.

Our government fails at aesthetics as a rule. In Modi, we have the first Prime Minister since Nehru to understand that aesthetics matter, and to have an opinion on style, for good or for ill. He understands spectacle, too. But all these things require follow-up. You can rally Indians in far-off lands through spectacle and style — but then you need to find a way to sustainably focus them, to form a lobby that serves your national ends. That hasn’t happened.

Here’s another thing that needs follow-up, and institutional change. Modi spoke eloquently about women’s safety during the campaign and on Independence Day. But since June, the anti-assault helpline in Delhi has been allowed to wither for lack of funds. The all-woman taxi service is likely to shut down because the government hasn’t paid its dues. Instead, the Delhi police – under Modi’s Centre – have responded to another brazen rape in the capital by setting up traffic barriers all over town — in crowded, well-lit, well-policed areas. Instead, of course, they should have been pushed into a bigger role in the less crowded, poorly-lit, badly-policed areas. But the government would rather do the wrong thing than give itself the capacity to do the right thing.

The truth is that “less government, more governance” is a chimera. Modi didn’t think it through, or was blinded by a genuine belief that his presence alone would cure India’s ills. As the police example shows, as the cleanliness example shows, you have a state that largely does too many things for the sake of doing them, but isn’t in enough places. Too much useless action, not enough capacity. Turns out, we need more government and less governance. An interesting message to take home this Good Governance Day, and a good way to honour the memory of Deendayal Upadhyaya – who is, after all, still remembered after all these years primarily for his innovative and path-breaking thinking about Good Governance.



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