We must not mistake slogans for substance. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s usually the slogan that triumphs. Most of us are familiar with Winston Churchill’s stirring words to the British House of Commons on 4 June 1940: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Stirring stuff. But most may not know that Churchill didn’t fight the Germans where they actually were—in Europe—till the Normandy landings a full four years later, 6 June 1944. By then Joseph Stalin had all but wrapped up the war. And yet it is the pudgy Englishman, not the grim Georgian, who is remembered as the face of defiance.

The great communicator of small government was Ronald Reagan, one of my favourite orators. Reagan famously said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’." He was elected on the promise of small and thrifty government. The fact is that on Reagan’s watch as president, the US government became bloated in everything from the military to social security, and the federal debt soared. But you cannot argue that with his Republican devotees, who insist the 1980s saw the halcyon days of conservatism.

“Minimum government, maximum governance" is our new creed. In four words it communicates what most of us want to hear from the state. Because there is too much government in India (not true, by the way) and not enough governance (undeniably true).

Who can argue against a lean and compact state punching efficiently with maximum force? All of it to be taken from the Gujarat Model, our governance bible which shows how a competent state is run in these parts.

What then should we make of recent revelations on the performance of the maximum governance state in the most important terrorism case of Gujarat’s history? How do we square the slogan on maximum governance with actual performance?

Briefly: On 24 September 2002, six months after the Godhra riots, two men with assault rifles murdered over 30 Gujaratis and security personnel in Ahmedabad’s Akshardham temple. The two killers, apparently Pakistanis, though we are not sure, were shot dead. However six Muslims were picked up, tried and convicted by The Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) court in Ahmedabad that heard the trial in camera (meaning in private rather than in open court). The Gujarat high court, which for some reason also heard their appeal in camera, agreed with the trial court and the prosecution, with three men getting death sentences and others imprisonment. The men were in jail long, with one of them actually completing his sentence, before the Supreme Court (SC) heard the appeal.

When the Supreme Court judgement arrived, even Narendra Modi’s most fierce critics would have been taken aback by the performance of his government in investigating and prosecuting the case.

Acquitting all the men, the Supreme Court said: “Before parting with the judgment, we intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing" (page 280).

Of Modi’s own role as home minister in approving Pota charges, the court said he had “simply signed the proposed note as a mark of approval" (page 107). The court added, “This would go to show clear non-application of mind by the Home Minister in granting sanction" (page 109).

The bumbling goes on and on. The Gujarat police had a handwriting expert who verified the Urdu handwriting of the accused, while admitting he knew no Urdu and could not tell it from Arabic or Persian.

It appears that even in terror cases, and remember Modi’s claims that he is strong on terror, Gujarat follows no governance process.

The chief judicial magistrate (CJM), who had a critical role in verifying the confessional statements (the main evidence used to convict), during cross-examination went on to record that:

“... I did not make inquiry with any police officers with regard to the said confessions. I had not asked the two accused produced before me as to whether they need any lawyer or not. I had not taken the said accused persons in my custody. It is true that I did not issue any warrant for them to be sent to judicial custody. It is true that I did not inquire with the accused about where and at what time and who recorded their statements.

“It is true that I have not kept any rojkam (daily register) or record in my court about the accused persons produced before me..." (page 127).

The SC says, “The statements by the CJM show how casually the mandates under Sections 32(4) and 32(5) were followed, rendering the said requirement a hollow and empty exercise" (page 128).

What does it say about the state administration that its police and the judiciary can act in this fashion?

The Supreme Court judgement is sobering reading for those who equate clever slogans with substance. For those who think Gujarat is some ideally governed state. And for those who assume there will be instant transformation in the way Delhi functions.

“If you wish to converse with me," wrote Voltaire, “define your terms."

I have no problem with the Modi love fest in the media in these happy times, and with such fine homilies on the new ways being bandied about.

But don’t talk to me of maximum governance unless you can tell me what it is.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns