Beyond governance by intentions
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Perhaps one of the most intriguing statements by Narendra Modi in his victory speech after the historic wins in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections was, “We can make mistakes, but our intentions are never wrong.” In effect, he was urging the public to judge him on his intent rather than actions. Given the election results, there is little doubt that he has largely been able to convince the electorate. The challenge now is to see how good intentions can be operationalized.
Traditionally, government actions (or lack thereof) have mostly been extensively researched, debated and judged by outcomes. Is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) a failure or success? Was bank nationalization necessary? Have our education and health policies achieved the desired outcomes? Did the Agriculture Produce and Marketing Committees meet their objectives? No doubt, all these policies were well-intentioned, but intention alone never mattered as much as this government wants it to. In fact, it would be foolish for any government to act without the best interests of the public in mind, and this government is no exception.
The Modi government has adopted several well-intentioned moves during its tenure. The most recent of these include surgical strikes across the Line of Control, demonetization, and pushing digitization, among others. Armed with unparalleled communication skills, and with little time or data to enable independent impact evaluation of government policies, not to mention a listless opposition, Modi has been successful in getting votes based on intent. The strategy has been simple yet effective: Take an economically risky decision; build a narrative of it being well-intentioned, necessary, in the national interest and reflective of a strong and decisive authority; exhort the people to contribute to such a nation-building exercise; strike an emotional chord in the process and get votes.
It has been suggested that emboldened by election wins, Modi will aggressively push his reforms agenda. Difficult decisions could be taken on important issues like benami property, land acquisition, labour reforms, stressed assets, job creation, farmer incomes, subsidy rationalization, expanding use of Aadhaar, digital payments and ease of doing business, among others. Fortunately, the goods and services tax is on course for implementation from July 2017. This narrative suits Modi as he is not afraid to take difficult decisions. He may once again get the intent absolutely perfect, yet the delivery may not be as good.
This seems to be a high possibility given Modi’s panache for intent and political message. Already, his critics are denouncing the way the demonetization, digitization, Jan Dhan Yojana and Aadhaar linkages have been pushed in the country. This is something that Modi would want to avoid at all costs in light of his national status. The question then is: Does Modi have the courage to go beyond headlines to address implementation and sustainability-related concerns? Is he ready to walk an extra mile to address the concerns of those oft neglected? Will he hear his critics and be open to course-correction, if need be?
Decision making on each of the issues mentioned above, and several others, would require dealing with a complex set of often conflicting interests. These include environmental and sustainability concerns, rehabilitation and resettlement issues, welfare of labour, rural inhabitants, and taking into account the interests of small and medium enterprises. Many of the existing problems have arisen owing to archaic and complex policies, an ill-equipped bureaucracy, lack of a coherent strategy, and process flaws in policy-making. Dealing with these issues will require structural changes in governance and administration, an area which might not make headlines like other popular reforms initiated by Modi. To truly make progress, the government will need to encourage impartial impact assessment of initiatives like mandating Aadhaar for social security schemes, Digital India, Make in India and Startup India. It will also need to take a long-term approach and introspect over its stand on issues like citizen surveillance, privacy, data protection, and consumer choice and protection.
Efficient decision making and effective implementation will require Modi to go beyond governing by intent. A comprehensive plan of action, outlining the objective of government policy, stakeholders involved, estimated impact, defining implementation, monitoring, compliance responsibilities and fixing accountability of actors, will need to be adopted. Such plans must be formulated after efficient public consultation and taking into account the concerns of diverse groups.
Process reforms like regulatory impact assessment, which require estimating and comparison of costs and benefits of policy and regulatory alternatives, will need to be integrated into the policymaking process. Data and its sources must be available for scrutiny in the public domain and be open to independent review.
Most experts argue that Modi has already won the 2019 general election as he is set to be in government for a decade, perhaps more. He has the opportunity to set the direction for India for the next 50 years, and truly become one of the country’s greats. He must not waste this opportunity. While good intentions will be important, they are not sufficient. It is time Modi realizes this and gets his act together in implementation.
Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary general of CUTS International, Jaipur.