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The mistakes that governments make catch up with them sooner or later. The only marker between different governments is the timing of mistakes and their frequency: some make them very early in their tenure. The second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was perhaps the quickest off the mark in recent memory. Within days of coming to power, it appointed ministers who later brought it to grief.

That, however, is history.

The question that is of interest today is if the Narendra Modi government, too, has opened its account on this score. Going by headlines and TV reports, it has made expensive ones recently. The allegations surrounding the disgraced cricket czar Lalit Modi, the minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj and perhaps more damagingly, those involving Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje have hurt the image of the Modi government. In recent days, the murderous events surrounding the professional admissions scandal in Madhya Pradesh have engulfed the chief minister of the state Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Through this rain of events, the stance of the Union government has been a time-tested one: to keep the prime minister at an arm’s length. This is a familiar expression if not stratagem. Manmohan Singh, too, was kept guarded in this way. In fact, one can take this back all the way to the Middle Ages: the king on an elephant in the middle of the battlefield, surrounded by a phalanx of horsemen and assorted soldiers.

But beyond all this is a different matter: is there a typology of regimes and the mistakes they make? The well-studied distinction in political science is between democracies and dictatorships with the latter being subject to far-greater dangers from human fallibility. The costs of wrong decisions by a single individual are far more expensive than those in a system with dispersed decision-making.  This distinction does not help us understand the mistakes in a democracy. The nature of governments in a democracy is not so sharp as to afford qualitative differences. But one distinction can help cast light on differences between governments. This is the demarcation between the interest of the party in power and national interest. In an ideal democracy, these should be aligned. But historically, the best example of this alignment is in single-party states, communist or non-communist.

In any existing democracy—and India is a particularly good example—it is the party interest that prevails and national interest, when not ignored, lags behind. The obverse, national interest being ahead of party interest, is a sure fire recipe for political trouble: in competitive political systems, rival parties quickly overcome a party that ignores its own, corporate interests. This may sound horribly Darwinian but it is a fair description of what goes on in most multi-party political systems.

So one can safely say that the course of action parties choose combines these interests, for good or bad.

Where does that leave India, and more particularly, the Modi government?

From the events of the past month, it is obvious that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) image getting dented is hurting its interests to an extent. This is not just a matter of noise and sound bytes on TV but is closely related to the staggering of elections in states. Often, the loss of states beyond a threshold signals long-term damage to the party. In the BJP’s case, the past 11-13 years over which it lost many states is reflected in its weak numbers in the Rajya Sabha. It is perhaps time for the Congress to start paying attention to this matter as it has control over just a handful of states.

What about the other ledger, that of national interest? Here the Modi government’s record, for now, appears to be better. The first signals of party interest pipping what the country needs is when a party gives in to distributional coalitions—unions, tariff and rent seeking entities and, more recently, employment guarantee seekers. It helps a party gain when the government splurges. So far, the BJP has held the line. While there is much that it can do on better managing fiscal matters, its record is decidedly better than that of the UPA, at least as far as expenditure control is concerned. This is a critical area where any laxity is the first step towards macroeconomic trouble. There are other, allegedly more contentious, areas where it has done well to change. More on them on another occasion.

Is there any way to insulate what is good for the country from what is good for a party? Alas, there are no known ways to effect this firewalling without creating misery. This is especially so for India where any extreme—making the walls between party and government interest porous (as in UPA-II) or too tight an insulation—is likely to create vested interests that ultimately harm the interests of citizens.

One way to reduce this tension is to ensure ever fewer tasks for the government. Then, scandals related to permission, approvals and, in general, discretion will go down. Dangers to party interest (from scams) and national interest (from nursing distributional coalitions) will come down. The BJP should think about that.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comment at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to
www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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