Business Standard

Indira Rajaraman: Look past 100 days

The first 100 days of any government should be a period when it is allowed to get its act together, with no media pressure for faster, higher

Indira Rajaraman 

The fevered focus on the first 100 days of any new government in office most likely originated in the United States, where the newly elected have a transition period of 10 weeks between election day and assumption of office. In the Indian system, the government takes oath within a week or so of declaration of election results. Therefore, much of what needs to be done of a purely transitional nature happens after the government assumes office. At such a time, for a new government to be hounded for whether it is leaping to fulfil its campaign promises is a form of harassment it can do without.

The immediate task any new government at the Centre faces, given the timing of the last few general elections, is to frame a budget for a fiscal year already under way. It has six weeks in which to do this. The interim Budget passed by the outgoing government covers only the first three months of the fiscal year, going up to the end of June. Budget preparation is a massive operation, and although there is in place a serving bureaucracy, ready to present a set of options, six weeks is very little time in which to complete a process that calls in the normal course for at least three months.

The further problem in India at the present juncture is that the term governance itself has become so subverted over years of neglect that there is no common understanding of what it means. In the rest of the world, good governance is held to mean efficient functioning of public services. In India, by contrast, the appeasement of particular groups through budget provisions and legislated entitlements of various kinds has become so deeply ingrained in the system that governance is regarded as a term inherently defined by the ideology of the party or faction advancing it. Underlying this is a sense that there is no such thing as the common good. For any particular governance initiative, even of the textbook variety carrying universal benefits, a search is launched for people not served by that initiative.

On May Day, the lieutenant governor of Delhi ordered five key departments of the Delhi government charged with regulatory functions to perform field checks on service delivery points. Half of 26 fair price shops were found to be either closed outright or engaged in diversion of foodstuffs. Touts selling drivers' licences, key enablers of horrific road accidents in the city, were located in five zonal offices of the transport department. Thirteen out of 16 petrol pumps were found to be cheating buyers by fixing their meters to deliver less than the stated volume. Several private schools were found to be not paying staff. Most nightmarishly of all, in two major wholesale markets for drugs and medicines, insulin and tetanus injections were found lying in the open in the May heat of Delhi, when they are required to be kept within two to eight degrees Celsius. Needless to say, medicines meant for public hospitals were found on sale in these markets.

This is the level of governance found in Delhi, the capital city. To most people, faced with the binary choice between letting these practices continue and correcting them, the choice will be clear. Yet, there are critics who will point to how the focus on these types of misgovernance is an elitist concern. As they see it, fair price shops cheat those lucky enough to have ration cards, but there are poor people who cannot even get ration cards. Touts help people too poor to pay for driving lessons, but with enough ability to pick up the skill on the job. Petrol pumps cheat customers rich enough to have a vehicle needing petrol. Staff on school payrolls are better off than contractual employees. Ineffective injections only affect people lucky enough to access some kind of medical care.

Misgovernance has gone on for so long, and has become so comprehensive a feature of our lives that any correction is treated with a cynical search for a hidden ideological or political agenda. The measured correction begun on orders by the lieutenant governor, an unelected former bureaucrat, is a welcome change from the theatrics of the short-lived Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, even though the latter was actually elected on a platform that promised better governance to the ordinary citizen.

The AAP government suffered from a particularly virulent form of 100 day fever, wanting to display fireworks and turn cartwheels while the focus of the media was still on them. In their case, the period for which they intended to stay in office was even shorter, and the pressure to display speed correspondingly greater. In the process, they weakened important public institutions that (are supposed to) serve the common public.

It can be no one's case that the Delhi Jal Board serves its public well. However, its institutional functioning is not helped when senior officials are summarily transferred out, which is what the AAP government did when they encountered bureaucratic resistance to their free water programme. The office of the Comptroller and Auditor General is unable to get the co-operation of the power distribution companies for the audit begun under an AAP fatwa. This weakens the authority of the only constitutionally appointed guardian of public funds. The dramatic confrontation between AAP ministers and the police was not designed to improve the functioning of the only institution to which the common citizen can turn for protection in public spaces.

At the end of the day, the best the citizen can do is to vote into power a government that then takes over the task of strengthening institutions provided for in the Constitution to guard the public interest.

The first 100 days of any government should be a period when it is allowed to get its act together, with no media pressure for faster, higher. Slower is fine, if it is directionally good, and places us irreversibly on a better governance platform.

The writer is a retired professor of economics

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First Published: Mon, May 26 2014. 21:50 IST