Two years of Modi: Efficient governance marred by a group of subpar ministers

At the two-year mark of the Modi government, it is natural that different aspects of its performance are reviewed. While the subject has been approached from many different perspectives, this piece looks at whether there is qualitative improvement in the governance standards at the Centre, and what this could portend for the administrative systems in dealing with the issues of the average citizen.

On one item, there is general agreement – that the governance in Delhi is much cleaner than it was two years back, and also that the bureaucracy in Delhi is much more action-oriented.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

The former will come as no surprise – the previous Central government was riddled with scams of nearly every variety, some of which have reached various stages in the legal process; the possibility of many more such questionable deals being reopened now is very real.

The earlier group of ministers at the Centre were probably more experienced, with a higher capacity for comprehension and analysis – however, this was marred by a propensity of the system to be generally unscrupulous.

While comparisons may not always be appropriate, it should also be mentioned that there is a marked lack of talent in the present set of ministers at the Centre.

Many of them are newcomers to governance and administration, some of them surely are learning fast and will mature with time – however, many do not have the capacity for analysis and to coordinate action on their own.

One needs to link this with the observation that the present crop of secretaries in the union ministries are now playing roles of enhanced importance, as nearly full partners in implementation and operational decision-making at the higher echelons.

One can point to a large number of initiatives, indeed successes, which have been sponsored or pioneered by the senior bureaucrats in Delhi – working closely in tandem with the political hierarchy.

In other words, the senior bureaucracy in Delhi is now trusted, and asked to perform and to deliver. In some senses, this is a test-period for the quality of higher services in India – the future of the administrative system as bequeathed by the British under trial.

With the project approval processes getting increasingly streamlined, and transparent, the focus has to be shifted naturally on implementation, which is equally if not more important. The main administrative and coordination issues now concern this aspect; much of field level implementation is in the province of the state governments.

Programmes like Make in India can succeed only if the ground-level issues are sorted out smoothly, without delay or irritation and with empathy and understanding, and with coordination between local state agencies. However, one can see no overarching or effective mechanism in which the Centre can act as a partner of the State, in successful implementation of projects and processes.

This is the important reason why the Centre does not seem to have any leverage of any sort, on the efficacy of the intervention by the state governments. There seems to be no political or financial carrot-and-stick mechanisms to encourage early implementation of projects and systems. This issue needs early attention.

Mention needs to be made of far reaching major structural initiatives pioneered by the Centre in the past couple of years. Lately, one hears increasingly of such ideas as ‘Digital India’, ‘insurance to farmers’, ‘vocational education’ etc; in fact, these have moved swiftly from tentative concepts into the action arena.

There is likelihood that Digital India may cover every gram panchayat (about 300,000 locations) in the next two or three years, to effectively bridge the rural-urban divide.

Thus, more than 500 processes or operations which could hitherto be done, say only from the district or tehsil towns, in some states from block towns, can now be transacted directly from each tiny village. This has major implications for delivery of services to the weakest citizen, the denizen of far-flung out-posts.

If harnessed with imagination, the day is not far off when the growth in learning levels of each student can be captured periodically by ‘big data’, and correlated with the performance of each rural teacher, thus providing a vehicle for sharp, improved primary and secondary schooling in each village; similarly classroom learning-aids can reach each nook and cranny, with ease.

Noting that over 90 percent of all enterprises (the smallest of the small) are outside the financial ambit of organised banking institutions (with KYC – Know Your Customer being the key mantra), the scope can be sharply increased to bring agencies into micro-micro lending, with the ability to increase proximity and drastically bring down the prevailing absurdly high financing rates in rural India.

This is imperative, if employment generation of significantly accelerated pace is to take place – the additional employment can only come through the smallest of the small units, which the finance minister has estimated in the budget to a number over six crore.

Along with this concept, the skills and vocational training needs to be sharply upgraded, to ensure that the projected demographic 'dividend’ does not turn into a demographic ‘disaster’.

The incredible rate at which the Aadhaar Card has already reached 90 percent of the population, including the illiterate and those at the bottom of the pile, is an indication as to how these new ideas, imaginatively using technology can be used to transform our rural areas (note that the Aadhaar idea originated in the earlier government, but the present system has used it effectively.)

The key to future progress is in including Rural India, hitherto left out of the development process, to come in its own, and start contributing to nation building.

In the last two years, many of these ideas have not just come on the table, but implementation has started apace. The quality of the policy makers in Delhi, particularly the higher bureaucracy, will be on test to see if these far-reaching concepts can be actually put to use.

Equally, will the politics and the higher bureaucracy of the states respond to the challenges, by embracing these new instruments? Encouragingly, the past two years have clearly shown that many states are willing to take the ball and run – will the laggard states be persuaded to wake up from their slumber?

Ultimately, the success of the Central government will depend on how it can use the political and bureaucratic machinery to convince the common man that he can actually benefit, tangibly, by the new administrative ambiance that is ought to be rolled out.

The success of the Modi government will be in demonstrating these to the common man – if not entirely fully in the next three years of the present government’s tenure, but surely within the next five years thereafter.

The ultimate question is not whether the Modi government will succeed or fail – the stakes are much larger – but will India succeed or collapse.

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Updated Date: May 26, 2016 16:35:08 IST

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