Dikshit-police spat tells us why governance is failing

The spat between the Delhi Chief Minister and the city’s Police Commissioner over the alleged pressure being applied by the latter over the recording of evidence in the gangrape case is symptomatic of one thing: the complete lack of accountability among politicians and administrators.

Is this how people in authority should be behaving when the whole of Delhi, and the country at large, is seething over the brutal gangrape and the wider issue of women’s safety? The answer is, of course, no.

But the deeper question to ask is: why is this happening at all? Do Sheila Dikshit and Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar not know that the credibility of the government and the police is at stake? Why are they still going for the jugular?

The answer, unfortunately, lies in the kind of structures we have created which often divorce power from accountability. And this exists not only in Delhi, but everywhere.

Consider the following examples:

Why is it that a Police Commissioner can defy the civilian authority of the Delhi CM? The answer is that the Delhi CM has no control over the police, which reports to the home ministry. How is a CM supposed to govern if law and order is handled by somebody who is not accountable to the elected government?

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar during cremation of constable Subhash Chand Tomar in New Delhi . PTI

But that’s just one half of the story. The other half is this: even in states where the police come under the elected government’s authority, there is a problem. No matter who runs the police, the latter has to be given the power to act professionally. They can’t be asked to kowtow to politicians. The Delhi Police can’t be blamed if they are expected to serve a huge megalopolis on the whims and fancies of their home ministry bosses. The police need autonomy and professionalism to deliver.

It is not only about Delhi. City governance is crumbling everywhere due to this dichotomy. Take Mumbai. The mayor of the city is a glorified ribbon-cutter; real power rests with the municipal commissioner, who is appointed not by the elected city government but by the state government. When both the city and state governments are from the same party, things can somehow be managed. But what if they come from opposite sides of the fence, as is the case in Mumbai? The city falls apart, and both sides can blame each other for the lack of governance.

The same separation of power from responsibility lies at the heart of our centre-state politics, which has become a zero-sum game. We all know that real economic power rests with the centre, but implementation power rests with the states. Real political power is with state-level leaders, but economic power is with babus in Delhi. Every policy, from investment approvals to environmental clearances, depends on the powers at the centre. It is a miracle that some states manage to grow despite this unequal power arrangement.

Or consider reforms. We all eulogise Manmohan Singh for the 1991 economic reforms. But we forget that all he did was free one or two areas: external trade and capital movements. We opened up the Indian market to imports with lower tariffs and allowed capital inflows. We also freed industrial licensing, and our 20-year growth story from 1991-2011 was the result of that small reform.

But we failed to carry our states along for the big reforms. As any school economics textbook will tell you, growth comes from freeing the factors of production from undue restraints. And these factors are land, labour, capital and organisation.

Capital and organisation were liberalised by the centre, but land and labour have been stuck without reforms. Not only that, instead of getting states on board, the centre is trying to dictate what land reforms should be all about: high, above-market payments to landed farmers. But the basic reform – making land easily transferable, and labour laws flexible – is nowhere in sight.

Says Indira Rajaraman in Business Standard: “Why was no attention directed towards reforming factor markets? The reason, of course, was that labour and land are on either the concurrent or state lists of functions in the Constitution. And the principal feature of the 1991 package was that it was done at the national level without any attempt to involve state governments as partners in the reform process….instead of taking states on board (we had) reform by stealth, so that issues like factor market reform which required state cooperation remained unaddressed.”

Clearly, no attempt was apparently made to align reform and responsibility. The centre did its own thing and states their own, and this is why India is not growing as fast as it should. On the contrary, centre and state try to neutralise one another by blocking the initiatives of the other.

Nowhere is the divorce of power from responsibility more apparent than in the creation of welfare schemes. The Congress party decides that NREGA or Food Security is vital to its political interests, but in this game of oneupmanship, the one thing that will ensure success – effective implementation by states – goes for a toss since neither centre nor states wants to let the other take credit for such schemes. So centre will blame states for bad implementation, and states will blame the centre for not giving enough funds.

The one-size-fits-all approach to spending by the centre leads to waste. Why should the centre decide whether NREGA is more important than food security or health? Every one of our states has different priorities, and trying to force everyone to do the same thing is a waste of time and money.

Such a separation of power from responsibility lies at the heart of the UPA government misgovernance, where Sonia wields the power, but the responsibility lies with Manmohan Singh. How can this work?

The solutions are obvious: greater federalism, more power to states, more power to districts and cities, and further devolution of power to lower and lower levels. At the political party level, political and executive authority cannot be divorced. Failure on this front has made Manmohan Singh a washout, even while the Modis, Mayawatis, Jayalalithaas and Nitish Kumars managed to get things done.

Isn’t it time for all of us to realise that this fatal flaw – power without accountability and vice-versa – lies at the heart of all our governance failures?

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