WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
The most familiar and expected approach to most human dealings in India is a negative one. Far from having the inclination to evince positive attitudes, the general tendency, especially when dealing with strangers, is to list reasons why something cannot be done. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone has a negative approach to all proposals made or initiatives taken. Were this to be the approach at all times, nothing would have ever got done in our country. Things do get done by and by, but the fact remains that the general approach to most proposals or decisions is to begin with a ‘no’ by way of response. The exercise of eventually turning the ‘no’ to a reluctant ‘yes’ often calls for special persuasive abilities, and persons who can be counted on to achieve this are in great demand in India. What is certainly a heartening development is that this negative approach is gradually making room for an increasing number of positive approaches, and more and more people are beginning to see the advantages of starting with a positive approach right from the beginning. What has long been on display in India is the general practice (especially within the government) of deferring decisions and of passing on even minor decisions to committees specially constituted for the purpose. This accounts for much of the delay in getting development activities started in our government departments. And all this talk about single-window clearance of applications for permission to start work on development projects, is really for the birds. In Indian States, there may be a single window for such matters now because this has become fashionable, but behind that single window there could well be quite a few persons who have to take decisions. Otherwise, it is difficult to account for the fact that in Assam the single-window clearance of applications has not made any appreciable difference either to the time required for processing the applications or for the completion of the projects.
The general experience in Assam is that the negative approach to things is very typical of the realm of politics and governance. It is interesting to look at how things work in the world of politics. In India, one is successfully in politics if one can prevent things from happening in the rival camp and make them happen double quick in one’s own party. The ability to sabotage successful completion of projects in the rival camp (as well as in one’s own party sometimes when a rival aspirant for a party ticket for the elections is involved) is the very stuff of politics. The Indian politician has no use for political ideologies or his own political party’s stand on major issues. After all, politics is very rarely issue-based or doctrine-oriented in India. Most of the time, what matters is a politician’s ability to harm someone or to tar and feather someone’s reputation to the extent that the victim has no way of winning the election he is contesting, but becomes a detested individual in the eyes of the people. It is this general climate that keeps politicians in politics much longer in India. The years lost due to the mischief or sabotage of a rival politician must be made up eventually after allowing time, the healer, to work its magic.
In India, any politician who expects to win elections and stay in business by banking entirely on political ideology or doctrine has no future as a politician. This is not because the electorate has no use for doctrinaire politics, but rather because the Indian politician himself has long ceased to be concerned with ideology. He is far more concerned about dealing with his rivals in a way that incapacitates them from defeating him in the elections. In India, a politician deems it his birthright to indulge in simulation and dissimulation and to prevaricate whenever it suits his fancy. The guiding principle for an Indian politician is to find every possible way to deceive people by his words so that no one can have an inkling of what his intentions actually are. The only persons he has to be completely honest with are his political bosses. Actually, he cannot afford to be less than completely honest with them, considering that they are more seasoned politicians than he is. In any given political situation, a seasoned politician is almost a mind-reader. He can make very intelligent and informed guesses about what is in the mind of someone he is interacting with. These attributes make the experienced Indian politician a person one needs to be afraid of not only because of the power he wields but also because of his ability to totally deceive people with his words. He seldom says what he means or means what he says.
All this is not to suggest that politicians elsewhere are very different. The difference that exists stems from the fact that they generally have an electorate that comprises a much higher number of educated persons. Therefore, it is far more difficult for them to survive with pretence, prevarication and deceit that are the stock in trade of the Indian politician. Politicians in Europe too seek to delude their electorate to the extent possible. But this is far more restricted than it is here because the punishments are so much more severe. A European politician who seeks to mislead his electorate is very unlikely to get a second term in office. In Assam, we have had a whole lot of politicians who have had three consecutive terms in office despite the many untruths that they have had to resort to in the 15 years that the Congress-led government had in Assam. Perhaps the most significant difference between the Indian politician and his European counterpart is that the European politician has to be far more accountable to his electorate than the Indian politician is required to be. European electorates are far less tolerant of politicians who make tall promises that are not honoured. All election promises have to be honoured and this accounts for the very specific promises that candidates make during election campaigns. I recall a general election in Britain in the year 1966 when both the Tory and the Labour candidates spoke of precise numbers of residential complexes that they would construct if elected. In the same way, they also made very specific promises about the miles of roads that their parties would develop if they came to power. Hazy, unspecified promises (like the ones our politicians make) would get them nowhere at all in Europe.
In Assam, the work culture and attitudes of our politicians have unfortunately rubbed off on our bureaucracy. What is normal for the politician here is a lot of talk and practically no performance to match the tall talk. Politicians in power get their work done through the bureaucracy and the other officers below them. As such, the real agents of socio-political change are the bureaucrats. But when the politicians are not up to the mark or have failed to educate themselves in order to motivate the bureaucracy, we see bureaucrats often explaining to their political bosses why something cannot be done rather than getting things done. In the 71 years since Independence, the performance of our bureaucracy has been far below par. We now even have a fair sprinkling of bureaucrats who have achieved little beyond pushing files and adorning their swanky offices. One gets the distinct impression that having cleared the selection examination that got them their jobs, they believe their role is to do a lot of self-adulatory talk about their jobs and little else beyond making files move. As proof of how little has been done for real development in these 71 years, I shall refer to just four areas of governance that have suffered from serious neglect. The first is a total failure to increase the power generation of Assam to match the increase in population and the needs of electricity for our dependence on power in the 21st century. Assam now has 68 lakh families out of which only 24.10 lakh families have access to electricity. With the State generating a measly 253 MW of power even today, what else can one expect? Assam’s daily need of power during summer is 1,820 MW even without any dreams of industrial development. So what does the State do? It buys 1,590 MW of power from other States. What kind of planning is this for any State in the 21st century? Likewise, the State administration has totally failed the people in the matter of controlling crimes like murder and rape as also in respect of health care and education. Such instances of major failure should impel our bureaucrats to abandon their negative approach to development and to adopt a far more positive attitude to the development of the State and to their positive roles in the context of such development.