Sunday, May 16, 2004


Times of India, May 15, 2004

The most popular word in our election vocabulary is "anti-incumbency" and this ungainly word re-emerged this week to explain why the Indian voter has punished the ruling coalition. Everyone has his own definition of "anti-incumbency", but I am convinced that it is a code word for, "Enough is enough! I am sick and tired of bad day-to-day governance."

Despite strong economic growth, good monsoons, improved relations with Pakistan and America , and a new national self-assuredness, Indians were unwilling to forgive bad governance. And they employed their favourite weapon against one of our best governments in recent times — they didnt re-elect it.

My neighbour told me last week, "I voted for the BJP the last time because I thought they would be different, but they turned out to be no better. So, I think I'll change my vote, and I'll change it again and again, until my neighbourhood improves." She despairs over the simplest public goods — good behaviour from the policeman on the beat, for a government schoolteacher to actually show up in school, for honest justice from the lower judiciary. This is what governance is all about and she will remain anti-incumbent until she gets it.

Like many Indians I used to blame ideology for our economic failures. But now I have realised that the bigger villain is poor day-to-day management. Even socialism could have delivered more and need not have degenerated into License Raj. It is this boring, everyday failure of implementation by our public servants that makes the average citizen's life dismal in India . And because bureaucrats are not accountable, our governance is weak and our public institutions fail.

Yet, we also know that good institutions are possible in India . We admire our armed forces, the Supreme Court, Reserve Bank and the Election Commission. If these institutions can be successful, so can others. This is the message of this and every recent election. The voter is telling the politician: "Reform the institutions that affect my daily life." But no one seems to be listening.

The sari tragedy in Lucknow was the defining image of this election. Apart from other sadnesses, it brought home the colossal managerial ineptness in our public life. Since the supply of saris fell short of demand from the thousands of hopefuls gathered, a good manager would have found a way to distribute them fairly and calmly.

Instead, panic and incompetence resulted in the tragic death of more than 20 women. The nation awaits Commissioner Lakkha's enquiry report. He has interviewed more than 180 eyewitnesses, and it will not be a surprise if he indicts both the police and the organisers for their callousness. I admire Atal Behari Vajpayee, and I could feel his anguish when he confessed there were huge areas of darkness while India was shining.

Ram Madhava of the RSS is wrong in saying that the BJP lost because it diluted its ideology. The secularists are wrong in thinking that the BJP has paid for Hindutva and Gujarat . The leftists are wrong to blame the economic reforms. (People are not against reforms; they want the reforms to be broadened, in fact, to agriculture so that everyone can shine.)

The voters have punished the BJP alliance for poor governance. What matters to the ordinary person is her daily life and this will only improve when our institutions improve, when babus implement, and when politicians hold babus accountable. By now you'd think our politicians would havedecoded the meaning of "anti-incumbency".


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