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Narendra Modi’s rise brings a new grammar to Indian politics

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-06-2014 Livemint

Like it or not, the language of political conversation and the grammar of how to get things done in the political economy is changing, and changing rapidly.

Quotes in the article

Paraphrasing the title of Harold Joseph Laski’s classic, A Grammar of Politics, Anil Padmanabhan writing in Mint last week says that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style will ensure that the “grammar of governance will undergo a radical change”. Instantly obliging the observation, Modi invited unfriendly neighbours, summoned secretaries, issued do’s and don’ts to cabinet ministers and appointed his principal secretary by an ordinance.

Modi’s 10-point plan announced last week has more to do with how than what. It includes themes such as build confidence in the bureaucracy, welcome innovative ideas, interact with public through social media, set up a mechanism for inter-ministerial issues, put a people-oriented system in place and implement policies in a time bound manner. In contrast, Indira Gandhi began her career as prime minister with a 10-point programme that focused on what had to be done. The 10 points covered areas where she chose to have government control: social control of banks, nationalization of general insurance and commodity-wise plans for import and export. In 1975, Gandhi moved on to a 20-point programme, a series of large government projects whose primary goal was a transfer to those living below the poverty line.

Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed a five-point plan to accelerate growth: top priority for the science and technology sector with special emphasis on software development; emphasis on doubling farm production within the next decade; higher priorities for healthcare, drinking water, education and sanitation; higher allocations for infrastructural development including roads, ports, airports, power and telecom sectors and equitable distribution of water resources. The highlights of Vajpayee’s plan were also about the what. For the first time in independent Indian history, a prime minister is focusing more on the plumbing of getting things done and less on what is flowing through the pipes.

It is in the spirit of this new grammar that you have to comprehend Modi’s otherwise nonsensical motto, “minimum government, maximum governance”. Explaining this, Modi says, “Government services lack certainty, a sense of equality and a sense of fairness. This is why people lack faith in it. But we must try to make government services that are fair and assured.” He adds to the explanation, “Government means rules and governance means delivery. Government implies authority while governance implies accountability. Government is power while governance is empowerment. Where there are files, there is government. Where there is life that is governance. We must fill the files with life. Governments can be tangled in files, governance must make life better”. The air of this change is catching on elsewhere in the country as well.

Nara Chandrababu Naidu, leader of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the chief minister-designate of Andhra Pradesh, is very much in the language business. The TDP was born with the central idea of Telugu language identity and dignity. It is an irony indeed that he will preside over one part of the newly divided Telugu desam. As a consequence, the Telugu-speaking people of Telangana and Yanam will likely follow a destiny that is different from that of coastal Andhra Pradesh.

Even before he has been sworn in as chief minister, Naidu has created a vision document which envisages a new capital near Vijaywada, a new airport in Kurnool and upgrades to airports in Vizag, Vijaywada, Rajahmundry and Tirupati, seven mega industrial zones and high-speed train corridors throughout the state. True to his style, Naidu is walking the corridors in Delhi, laptop in hand, communicating the need for special infrastructure grants for the new state.

There should also be a new (or at least newly revived) forum and grammar in centre-state relations. The imperial style of the Planning Commission’s discussions with states should be replaced with this “get it done” style. The National Development Council (NDC), a body of political leaders from the centre and states, should engage in purposeful dialogue rather than the ponderous and dysfunctional meetings they have become.

Writing recently in The Indian Express, Manish Sabharwal has suggested an energized NDC, with ownership shifting from the Planning Commission to the Prime Minister’s Office. He has recommended three multi-disciplinary standing committees in areas that are typically log-jammed; infrastructure, public finance, and education, skills and jobs. Imagine the possibilities when the chief minister of a state can stand toe-to-toe with the prime minister and purposefully discuss economic collaboration.

For a country paralysed for several years by the cholesterol of graft and indecision, much of this is welcome. Language and grammar have an ultimate purpose of communication and action and so this new way will have to be judged by results. In the meantime, we will get plenty of opportunity to practice the new grammar.

PS: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude,” said the recently deceased Maya Angelou.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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