It has been a little over three months since the results of the General elections in India were declared, bringing a new government to power after a decade. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was earlier the principal opposition party, is now at the helm. Bhakts, skeptics and political pundits have all been producing weekly report cards and making prophecies on the performance of the new government. This is an encouraging trend for a country, where for the last few years people have been disenchanted and disillusioned with the political class, due to scandals and scams that have robbed the exchequer of thousands of crores of rupees. The renewed interest in politics and governance is essential to ensure that the new government does not become complacent and ignore the demands of the public – which it represents.
While it is too early to make a prophecy on what the new government will achieve over the next five years, three months are certainly symbolic of the style of governance that Modi represents and the reforms that the government may bring about. In this regard, the governments’ performance on three fronts is rather encouraging - improvement in legislative performance, fast-tracked decision making and an emphasis on centre-state relations. The recently concluded budget session of parliament, though marred by disruptions, has been the most productive session in terms of output since 2005. Some crucial reforms have been initiated. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill etc. which has changed the process of appointments of judges has been codified. Issues such as the situation of Indians stranded in Iraq and the flood situation in the country have been discussed in parliament. The reason for this is not just the decisive majority that the government commands in the lower house.
Even though the government is in the minority in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha has performed equally well. This is because of extensive floor management. that necessitates negotiating with opposition parties to pass bills which the government seems to have been able to do well, especially in the budget session. This is important, because the last two years saw a perpetual gridlock in parliament which stalled the passage of crucial bills, thereby stalling important reforms. If the government is able to keep up its performance in parliament, several urgently needed reforms will get a much-needed push.
The second important development is the attempt made by the government to enliven the bureaucracy, fast track executive decision making and do away with redundant procedures. Bureaucrats have been told to emphasize attendance and punctuality and to adhere to strict timelines in making decisions. Ever since the new government has come to power, ministers have been undertaking surprise checks and reprimanding errant officials, something that had rarely been done in the last few years. There has been a literal cleanup of government offices with thousands of unimportant files being shredded and government offices maintaining cleanliness. Targets have been hiked and incentives restructured. These measures are already starting to show a slight improvement in the efficiency of the working of government offices. If they are continued, it could potentially change the perception of ‘Sarkari Babus’ in India for good.
The third area where the government’s first steps are encouraging is centre-state relations. Throughout its election campaign and after coming to power, the BJP has been emphasizing bridging the trust deficit between the centre and the states. India has a federal polity with a strong centre. That being said, state governments are not fiscally empowered (most of the lucrative taxes are levied by the central government) and are dependent on central governments’ grants to carry out developmental programmes. This dependence has led to state governments feeling short-changed and discriminated against. Two steps have been initiated to remedy this to some extent; first is the raising of royalty rates and the second is bringing in a unified sales tax regime. Mineral bearing states receive a royalty on the minerals mined. This is an additional source of revenue for mineral rich states. However, the royalty rate is determined by the central government. A revision in royalty rates had been due for the last two years, causing significant losses to state governments.
Recently, the central government has taken a decision to hike royalty rates for all mineral bearing states. Apart from this, negotiations with state governments to bring in a unified and simplistic sales tax system in the country; the Goods and Services tax are already in progress. Furthermore, senior bureaucrats have been given strict instructions to deal with requests from state governments, as a top priority, which is a confidence building measure.
Lastly, this government’s action reflects a politics of pragmatism rather than populism. Schemes and programmes (on food security & rural employment) which have been initiated by the last government have not been discontinued abruptly, as is often done when opposition parties come to power. In fact programmes like Aadhar (India’s unique identification project) are being carried forward with greater allocations and tweaks that can bring about more efficiency. Before elections, several skeptics feared a saffronization of the government if Modi came to power. However, the Prime Minister’s deliberate and repeated focus on improving sanitation, healthcare and financial inclusion has proven that he is not just a politician, but a statesman.
The prime slogan of the Bharatiya Janata Party in its election campaign was “Acche Din Aane Waale Hain” which literally translates to “Good days are in the offing.” Although it is too early to say that the government has brought good days for all, the initial signs are certainly encouraging.