Of late, numerous political critics have pointed out a trend of declining governance in India. In fact, even as most commoners are not equipped with an understanding of the terminology, expressions of similar ideas are made when there are claims of arbitrariness in decision-making and policy implementation on part of the government. This article seeks to explore the question in the title, ‘Is governance failing in India?’ by analysing the meaning of governance and situating it in the context of contemporary India.
What does governance mean?
Governance is a relatively new political concept which draws attention to the multiple processes and interactions involving a plurality of actors that have highly diverse social, economic and political interests, which produce policies to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises of mechanisms and institutions through which citizens articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences and conflicts. Governance, in simple terms, indicates a more flexible and accommodating way of managing a society and nation. There is a transition in the role of the State from being a central authoritarian institution to becoming a facilitator and mediator in the process of development. The process involves an active cooperation between the State, private enterprises and civil society organisations operating in a society, promoting an enhanced Public-Private Partnership Model (PPP) in development endeavours. This relationship is enabled by the foundation of a strong and well-developed networking system that provides the platform for easy and rapid communication and dialogue.
Contextualising the emergence of the concept
Now, our knowledge of history tells us that the nature of States in most systems in the past has not quite been similar to that in contemporary times. Therefore, it becomes important to briefly trace the evolution of modern States and the consequent emergence of the notion of ‘Governance’. We know that most systems prior to 1945 were Absolutist States that formed the centre of power in their respective societies and commanded almost all decision-making authority. This was to a great extent applicable even to liberal democratic States that yielded power from the citizens, because once elected, governments practically were the repository of all administrative, executive, legislative and judicial powers. In fact, in most of the liberal democracies around the Third World that were born in the aftermath of 1945, the State centric model was promoted, as the State was made responsible for ensuring a holistic development of the entire nation and it could not fulfil the task without having absolute authority in decision making. The failure of this model started surfacing by the 1970s and 1980s. The dissatisfaction arising in the masses caused the growth of several new social movements, taking up issues like growing economic inequality, continued hunger and malnutrition, demands for secession, etc. People were also aware of the extensive corruption plaguing the bureaucracy, that was continually misappropriating development funds granted by international institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, etc.
The crucial turning point, however, came with the advent of globalisation around the world. In consideration of capitalist interests, the West European countries and agencies nearly mandated all third world countries to liberalise. Once these hitherto protected domestic economies were hit by the forces of privatisation and globalisation, there were dynamic changes in the economy and the society which compelled certain drastic changes in the nature of the State. This is the period which witnessed a “rolling back” of the State as multinational private actors emerged as significant stakeholders. The exposure to liberal commodities and ideas further enabled the emergence of an active civil society that realised its role in the changing scenario. There was a major shift from the omnipotence of the State to a more market-friendly, liberal and interactive form of governing, which gained prominence as the concept of ‘Governance’. The idea of good governance in the era of globalisation comprises of certain principles that are required to be realised. Some of these ideals are transparency, accountability, equity, access, efficiency and responsiveness. Recent electoral campaigns around the world are flooded with political parties referring to the notion of governance and pledging their commitment to ideas like “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”. This forwards the understanding that there is a fundamental difference between ‘government’ and ‘governance’, and the latter is more desirable in modern democracies.
Is governance failing in India?
Taking into account the last decade, and particularly the period after 2014, one can observe that a considerable part of the economic development in India can be attributed to the increased participation of the private sector. PM Modi has been keen on harnessing the potential that the private sector has in ensuring greater efficiency in resource utilisation, employment generation and an overall growth for the economy. He has visibly endeavoured to invite foreign investments to the country and also put in place simpler and more effective single-portal mechanisms for licensing, taxation, administrative support etc. for these companies. The government has also extended support to indigenous businesses and start-ups through various programmes like StartUp India, Make in India, etc. Therefore, the part on collaborations with the business enterprises has been dealt with.
The government has also taken several steps to widen access to various facilities and services like banking and other financial services, education, etc. The zero balance accounts scheme has brought within the purview of banking, millions of people who had hitherto been excluded from exposure to such services. This has gone on to inculcate habits of saving amongst the masses, and has also enabled greater utilisation of bank accounts by the government for transferring subsidies and pensions directly to individual accounts, thus reducing the rates of corruption. The new Education Policy also elaborates on an extension of the Right to Education in India for children from 3-18 years of age.
However, there is also a need to recognise and point out certain very significant shortcomings of governance in contemporary India. One of the most concerning areas is the lack of transparency in the process of governance. Transparency in the communication of important decisions and policies of the government has been a recurrent problem, particularly with the NDA government. This can be elucidated by observing multiple sensitive policy decisions that were literally communicated overnight, and that too without much deliberation. Several economic measures like Demonetisation, or the implementation of the GST, most of which had perhaps been well intended policies, inflicted problems as their implementation was not done adequately. In this case, the explanation on the need for secrecy does not go down well with the citizens who are forced to situations where they have to compromise on their peace and stability and the end results are not as projected anyway.
The Budget Session of 2019 also presented multiple such instances of lack of effective transparency. This Budget session demonstrated record productivity with regard to the number of legislations made and hours devoted to work. In fact, the session was extended for a couple of days in order to allow more legislation. The activeness was certainly encouraging and applaudable. The problem, however, was that a lot of controversial and sensitive legislations, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, the decision of repealing Article 370 from the former State of Jammu and Kashmir, to consider a few instances, were made without sufficient deliberation in the Parliament. These claims could definitely be refuted by two primary arguments: the overwhelming numerical majority of the NDA in the Parliament allows easy and quick business to happen in their favour, and these being sensitive domains also have vital consequences for national security, stability and law and order maintenance, and therefore, cannot be made public in advance. While these are valid justifications, there still must be some effort on part of the government to ensure that people feel a greater sense of inclusiveness in the decision-making process and in governance, without which there may develop a feeling of alienation from the activities of the government. This also gives rise to claims of arbitrariness from the Opposition.
Thus, governance is a rather broad and flexible concept to measure in hard numbers. To answer the question posed at the very outset, it may not be failing in India at the moment, but trends towards diminishing transparency and inclusiveness may certainly pose considerable threats if not curbed effectively.
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