Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why our road minister’s statements make us so happy
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Every now and then, a man from the government says modern things. Then nothing happens, and he returns to say more modern things. He has the air of someone from the 80s. Yet, among all Indian politicians, he says the most urban things.

Nitin Gadkari, India’s minister of road transport and highways, almost never talks about grand but useless things; instead, he talks about things like parking and roads. On Thursday, he said he was mulling a reward of 500 for any Indian who betrays a vehicle parked in the wrong place to the authorities. In the recent past, he has mulled over increasing fines for traffic violations many folds, reducing deaths on Indian roads by 50%, ensuring that all government vehicles be electric, building “multi-level hybrid flyovers" and changing all vehicular horns to sounds of Indian musical instruments. Recently, he set a daily target of building 60km of highways.

Gadkari appears at press conferences where he offers details like a chief executive. Once when a journalist asked for toll exemptions for the press, Gadkari said Indians should learn to pay for services. Also, he uses a hydrogen-powered car.

In contrast, every time Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pitched modernity, he has been inscrutable—for instance, he said India should build “twin cities" and “smart cities", and that what the world thinks is climate change might merely be the inability of ageing people to endure weather.

Gadkari is today a harbinger of simple joys, even though urban Indians are not so naive as to believe that everything he says will come true. A few years ago, he said Indians tend to plan for a year; we should instead plan for 100 years. Who else in the government says things like that? Most of the time, he is only mulling, and not doing. Even so, we are not used to politicians who know how to mull what is good for the pubic.

An unsung source of small human joys is any news of future infrastructure. Something about bridges and roads of the future in a place familiar to us makes us feel that life is going to be more interesting than the banal present. If we ever compile the history of news on the future of commuting, we will realize that most of it never came true, but all the honest fantasies of prophets of urban planning did bring some hope to their generation. It is in that way Gadkari makes us happy.

His rise to national prominence is a bit odd. Why has it happened? He was never a mass leader. Not so suave like Arun Jaitley that he could never win an election. Still, in a country where there is probably only one national politician, Gadkari does not have much public appeal beyond some pockets. Usually, people who are very useful to their organizations but are not superstars remain unknown and useful. But there is a mysterious and ethereal force that promotes him. What else can explain the fact that when he says something sensible and modern about civic order, which normally is not as newsworthy as esoteric useless things, his words get prominent media coverage?

This makes me feel that Gadkari’s mulling is a part of the ongoing cultural reformation of Indian society, and that in the future, Hindu nationalism is not going to be only about Hinduism or nationalism, but also about civic order and quality of life. I await this transition of nationalism from pride to something more useful—like shame.

India is a middle-income nation that behaves like a poor nation. There is simply no economic reason anymore why India has to be so difficult to its own people. But Gadkari is more harbinger than prophet. He is more successful with statements of intent than execution. The reason why Gadkari’s mulling never changes anything is the same as why all of India’s good intentions fail. Gadkari and India keep asking Indians to do the right things—drive in your lane, park correctly, follow the rules. But this is not how advanced countries created civic order. Those governments first did a spectacular job of creating conducive conditions. They made good roads and trains and platforms, used intelligent design that made flouting rules difficult and provided people all the facilities needed to ensure only malevolent motives could lead them to break the law. On the other hand, in India the road design itself, and even traffic signals, can kill us.

If a government does its job well, citizens would follow its rules. Many of our bureaucrats don’t believe that. They have a dim view of Indians. They say if you provide the best infrastructure, Indians will make it the worst, or even steal it. This is a country where a whole iron bridge was stolen. Administrators have a misanthropic view; they despise people. I am not going to say they must have nobler view of people because there is no evidence that people are noble. In fact, I feel that the problem with Indian administrators is not misanthropy, but its wrong application.

Contrary to what administrators say, across the world, when a government creates a public utility of great quality, citizens follow all the rules. There is evidence even in India: the Delhi Metro. The adherence to rules on this and other such air-conditioned transit systems is many notches higher than what Indians exhibit on the roads. It is as though we are a proper middle-income nation aboard the Metro and a banana republic outside. The reason is not mutual respect. People don’t follow rules out of gratitude or regard for infrastructure creators. It is the fear that if someone can run a good service, it will also be good at implementing hefty fines.

Civic order originates in fear. Every other origin is merely a lamer word for that.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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