D. N. Bezboruah
Two days before the year 2016 dawned, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced that the State government would come up with a White Paper vis-à-vis Central funding during the current BJP-led NDA Union government and the previous Congress-led UPA government at the Centre. He said that Assam had lost a whopping Rs 11,000 crore following the recent changes effected in the funding pattern by the Centre. On New Year’s Day, he was full of confidence of the good show of the Congress in the forthcoming elections and also announced a whole lot of sops to attract more votes. Before going into the question of whether or not these sops, announced so close to the coming Assembly elections, constitute a violation of the model code of conduct for political parties, it probably makes better sense to take a closer look at what a White Paper is and what it means to the Assam government that has got into the habit of talking about white papers at the drop of a hat.
A White Paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. The initial British term concerning a type of government-issued document has proliferated—taking a somewhat new meaning in business. In business, a White Paper is closer to a formal marketing presentation, a tool meant to persuade customers and partners and promote a product or a viewpoint. However, here we are not concerned with what a White Paper means in business circles. Since our focus is on the White Paper to be issued by the Assam government, we are concerned rather with what the term means in government circles. As I said earlier, the term White Paper origited with the British government, and many observers of political affairs point to the Churchill White Paper of 1922 as the earliest well-known example under this me. In British government it is usually the less extensive version of the so-called blue book, both terms being derived from the colour of the document’s cover. White papers are regarded as tools of participatory democracy and not ulterable policy commitment. White papers have tried to perform the dual role of presenting firm government policies while at the same time inviting opinions upon them. In Cada, a White Paper is a policy document approved by Cabinet, tabled in the House of Commons and made available to the general public. In a sense, therefore, white papers are a way the government can present policy preferences before it introduces legislation. Publishing a white paper tests public opinion on controversial policy issues and helps the government gauge its probable impact.
In Assam, the potential of white papers—of securing public opinion and of presenting policy preferences before introducing legislation—is more or less lost due to the casual attitude adopted in publishing them. The most significant result of this is that participatory democracy is almost totally forfeited due to such an approach. Let us take a closer look at what exactly Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi seeks to achieve by presenting a White Paper on Central funding that will have a comparative statement of how Central funding to Assam was during the Congress-led UPA regime and how it is during the BJP-led NDA government. What makes a White Paper on the issue a pointless and redundant exercise is that the funding patterns during the two regimes at the Centre are already well known and fairly well understood. What stands out like a sore thumb is the extent of fincial irregularities committed by the UPA government to favour a Congress government in Assam. The entire business of condoning serious fiscal indiscipline in Congress-ruled State governments was a distinctive feature of the UPA government that resulted in Central grants being continued to Assam despite the State government’s failure to submit utilization certificates for several thousand crores of rupees. Such a style of functioning translates to an endorsement of the loot of thousands of crores of rupees of Central funds that was going on in Assam. The significant difference between the UPA government’s style of functioning and the NDA government’s style is that the latter refuses to endorse fincial indiscipline of any kind that ebles the siphoning of public money into private coffers. It is possible that the NDA government is a little more strict with State governments ruled by other political parties. However, the UPA government was no different in its attitude to State Governments ruled by non-Congress State governments. What is most obvious is the political culture of tit for tat that has long worked in our polity. No political party seems to have realized that it would have much greater public support if it was able to get out of the tit-for-tat culture and be more generous than its rivals about treating State governments run by other political parties. However, this is unlikely to happen for a long time because the wounds inflicted by actions perceived to be vindictive and partisan fester in the mind for a long time. After all, there is little that is generous in Indian politics towards rival political parties. Matters like grace and finesse are quite alien to our polity. This should be only too evident from the way Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi himself has been treating his political adversaries in recent weeks.
This takes us back to the question of whether a White Paper on Central funds to Assam is an exercise that will in any way make a difference to people’s participation in democracy in the State or the government’s desire or even willingness to accept any sensible advice on administrative strategies and procedures. It will not alter the facts that the Assam government was able to get away with a lot of totally ucceptable and ruinous fiscal indiscipline during the UPA regime at the Centre and that it is resentful of the fact that the NDA government at the Centre does not take quite as kindly to such fiscal indiscipline that the UPA government willingly supported. The Assam government feels the need for a White Paper on Central funding largely because there is a significant decrease of over Rs 11,000 crore today compared to what it was able to get from an indulgent UPA government. In fact, if a White Paper is called for it is because the Assam government has a lot of explaining to do about colossal amounts of development funds received from the Centre that have not been properly accounted for. Not to speak of the huge sums that have gone uccounted for, there is more than Rs 12,000 crore of the Centre’s development grants for which even the utilization certificates have not been submitted. The people of Assam have a right to get an explation from the State government as to why the rampant loot of the Centre’s development funds has been encouraged by the State government so that such siphoning of public money is beginning to look like a legitimate business. What the Tarun Gogoi government has achieved in the last 10 years of its 15-year tenure is legitimization of all kinds of corruption mainly related to development funds received from the Centre. And figuratively speaking, any White Paper on this issue is bound to be grey, pink or brown or any other colour than it can mage to be white. If there have been changes in the Centre’s funding pattern that have not been to the liking of the State government, the fault lies with the State government and its condemble fiscal indiscipline rather than what the Centre is doing to indicate its dislike of such fiscal indiscipline. If anything, this strict demand of proper fiscal discipline must be imposed with even greater stringency because we do not wish to have all the people of Assam identified with total dishonesty and a preference for loot (as opposed to honest work for a decent livelihood), just because the State government has permitted its select breed of blue-eyed parasites to loot public money for private gain. If this state of affairs is permitted to go on, the definitions of all acceptable norms of behaviour must undergo a total change in our State just because that is how Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi wants the State and its people to be for his electoral convenience. There have to be some people in Assam thinking of the future generations and about a habitable State for law-abiding citizens even if the Chief Minister of the State has abdicated his responsibility to do so.