Price of governance is eternal vigilance

Price of governance is eternal vigilance

By M.J. Akbar | 18 October, 2014
To assume that the road to the promised horizon will be easy is to expect too much. There is massive inertia in the political class, as well as establishment machinery.

Absolutely the silliest thing that a columnist can do is predict Indian election results a few hours before facts begin to flicker across your television screen. But surely opinion and exit polls cannot all be wrong? Their unanimity confirms a trend, even if they take the fragile insurance of bracketing specific numbers with a five per cent margin of error. This used to be only three per cent in the bad old days, but discretion is now synonymous with valour.

It is evident that BJP will be invited to form the government in both Maharashtra and Haryana; the debate is only whether it will do so on its own strength, or with the help of present or future alliances. The history of recent elections, in almost every case since 2009, proves one thing above all else: when Indians vote now, they vote decisively. It is as if they do not want to provide any incoming government with the alibi of uncertainty, or the excuse that governance became difficult because of what Dr Manmohan Singh famously called "coalition compulsions". His explanation that he permitted humungous corruption because allies made that the price of power has left a deep distaste. It is another matter that Dr Singh has used, more than once, this catch-all phrase to excuse favours given by Congress state governments to Robert Vadra, or deals like the Agusta helicopter purchase where no ally was involved.

The secondary evidence is, politically, more revealing. Irrespective of how well the BJP does, what is beyond doubt is that the Congress has lost. Lost may be a mild term in the context of the fact that Congress could end up third or even fourth in its two strongest regional citadels. Maharashtra is particularly important, because this was the final frontier from which Congress could have renewed its long march to Delhi. But even before votes were counted, civil wars broke out. Prithviraj Chavan, the last Congress Chief Minister, has publicly blamed his predecessor Congress CMs, and their lobbies, in turn, have started gunning for him. Of course neither faction has the courage to blame the real engineers of Congress collapse: an ineffectual and strangely quixotic Rahul Gandhi aided and abetted by his doting mother Sonia, who believes her son's stalled upward mobility is more important than either her party's or the nation's interest.

As for Haryana, Congress formally conceded defeat when outgoing Chief Minister Bhupinder Hooda cleared yet another brazen land deal in favour of Vadra in the middle of elections. The Congress ruling family was once again picking up personal assets from the debris of political collapse.

Our freedom no longer needs much vigilance, but governance does. Something in our elite character makes us accountability-averse.

Within four months Prime Minister Narendra Modi has achieved an extraordinary triple. In May he not only doubled BJP seats in the Lok Sabha, but won a single party majority for the first time since January 1985. No one has taken such a quantum leap in electoral numbers in India's parliamentary history. In the state elections, he will have multiplied BJP seats in Maharashtra by more than three times, and lifted BJP representation in the Haryana Assembly by a likely ten times. How historic is that? The scale is startling.

Defeat begets trauma, as is visible in the Congress. But victory can also provoke anxiety, as it comes riding the horse of escalating aspirations.

Numbers in the legislature are an essential measure of strength, but they are not enough. Rajiv Gandhi had more MPs in the Lok Sabha, thanks to Mrs Indira Gandhi's tragic assassination in 1984, than anyone is likely to get, but that proved little compensation for experience. He often drifted between undue caution and excessive certainty. His seminal mistake in the Shah Bano alimony case, a result of totally unnecessary caution induced by conservative lobbies, fractured the trust India had reposed in him, even as it misread the mood of the changing Indian voter. His robust certainty that Indian military intervention was essential in Sri Lanka are just two examples of mistaken judgment.

Narendra Modi was not parachuted into the PM's chair. He ran an administration in Gujarat with sufficient success to capture the nation's imagination. He has a balanced sense of what is required. He began the second stage of government formation even before results were declared. But to assume that the road to his promised horizon will be easy is to expect too much. There is massive inertia in the political class, as well as establishment machinery, that can reduce the best of intentions to a stutter. Freedom, it has been said, demands eternal vigilance. Our freedom no longer needs much vigilance, but governance does. Something in our elite character makes us accountability-averse. Politics still works precisely because there is the possibility of punishment, and indeed hope of reward, through elections. We cannot, alas, extend elections to other parts of government. But if the people are not permitted to judge, then the Prime Minister must act on behalf of the people.

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