WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
In a land where any worthwhile performance by our rulers is hard to come by, we are obliged to attach undue importance to pre-election promises made by political parties. Unfortutely, for people who mage to eke out their political careers without any noteworthy performance, these empty promises serve merely as the stock in trade of their political careers. There is much that is wrong with these pre-election promises. In the first place, even the politicians who make them know very well that they are not going to keep them. After all, there is probably no politician who keeps a written record of the promises that he/she had made so that they can be ticked off the list one by one when the politician becomes a ruler. Besides, the promises are so vague and unspecific that the elected ruler does not even know where to begin. Promises like the “development of the Northeast” are too vague to be capable of being honoured. There are always gging questions like “Which part of the Northeast?”, “What kind of development?”, “What extent of development in monetary terms?” and so on. One harks back to the promises made in Assam, about Assam by the BJP before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, and turally keeps asking how many of these promises have been fulfilled. The answer is generally a rather disappointing one.
This is not to suggest that pre-election promises are not made by candidates in other countries. I witnessed one general election in Britain many years ago. The voting for the parliamentary elections was through paper ballots, and the speed at which declaration of election results was completed was amazing. By 12 hours after the completion of the voting process, the results for all the constituencies of Britain were announced. I also recall that pre-election promises were all very specific ones. When a candidate promised to extend a residential area, he was required to specify the number of new houses that would be built. When the courses available in a college or university were promised to be extended, the candidate would have to specify what new departments were going to be added and the expected addition to the existing faculty as well as the anticipated increase in the student strength. The British system simply did not have any room for wishy-washy pre-election promises that would not be honoured. That the ability to honour pre-election promises is rewarded by the electorate even in India should be evident from the electoral performance of candidates like Maneka Gandhi who have not had to do any campaigning for the past three or four general elections largely because they honoured their pre-election promises and established their worth through their performance. All the machitions that politicians resort to in order to win elections are really quite unnecessary even in India. What most of our lawmakers have failed to realize is that all the scheming and bribing of voters seems necessary to them because they failed the people on the most important qualification for all lawmakers, mely the qualification of having performed well when they were in power. I firmly believe that the high cost of general elections in India (about the highest in the world) will come down drastically if our rulers are dedicated to efficient performance when they are in power. But all this is likely to happen only when there is genuine respect for the citizen and the voter not merely before general elections but at all times. As things are now, election candidates probably think of the voter as someone who can be hoodwinked and taken for a ride with rosy promises that no one intends to keep. This perverse scerio has been ected and re-ected time and again, and the people of India do not seem to have learnt the lessons that they should have done several decades ago.
What the lamentable failure to win elections through performance rather than through empty promises has done to the style of governce in India is to induct much more than the permissible modicum of ad hocism to administration. One recent example should perhaps suffice to illustrate this. In recent months, prices of essential commodities, especially food items, have gone through the roof all over the country. However, the volatile ture of prices is far more marked in Assam and the Northeast. This is largely because people have no idea of what prices are like in the rest of the country or what a reasoble price for any item ought to be. Apart from this lack of information and genuine concern about fair prices, during the last 15 years the State government itself has gone about promoting the culture of easy money and reckless fiscal indiscipline in the State. No matter what the Chief Minister of Assam might have to say about the Centre’s failure to release development funds for Assam despite utilization certificates having been furnished, everyone knows what the real situation is. The Assam government has failed to furnish utilization certificates and/or satisfactory statements of accounts for something like Rs 12,000 crore. This, coupled with the high level of corruption, has led to reckless spending of public money by ministers and bureaucrats. This has also led suppliers of essential commodities and traders to function on the assumption that almost everyone in the State has plenty of slush money to scatter around. This assumption could well be at the root of the recklessness with which traders hike prices in the State. All said and done, even without any major hike in diesel prices, there has been abnormal increases in food prices during the last few weeks. In fact, with a greater number of reductions than increases during the last eight months, fossil fuel prices have become slightly lower than what they were a year ago. What has really been happening (apart from artificial price hikes brought in by major traders) is a sharp increase in the number of middlemen associated with the trade in essential commodities. Another condemble equation relating to prices exists in Assam. In a State where there is hardly any industrial production, much of the business relates to the service sector. Here rates can vary dramatically. If one approaches the supplier of services on foot, the rates could well be much less than what they would be if one went to him in a car. A smart way of getting lower rates would be to park one’s car far away and walk up to the service provider in shabby clothes and slippers. There seems to no one who can be expected to bring any kind of control or regulated rates to the service sector in the State. But the service sector apart, over the last few months there have been no visible efforts on the part of the State government to bring down any prices—especially food prices. All agitations by the AASU and other organizations have proved futile since the State government has not been receptive to the legitimate demands of the people to hold the price line. It was only when a resourceful group decided to boil leaves and grass and eat it all in public view that the administration seems to have woken up to need for action. It is very likely that this move had the desired effect on a callous administration, even though the ‘remedial measures’ initiated were clearly rather ad hoc in ture. Instead of going for the big cats in the trade, the administration chose to take action against the retailers and small traders. Were the big guns in the trade spared because they had been generous to the ruling party before the recent Assembly elections? Gunning for the smaller fry was no more than a way of performing a meaningless ritual for the benefit of the print and electronic media. It is this kind of belated knee-jerk reaction to situations (that should have been handled much earlier) that I have in mind when I talk of the kind of ad hocism that vitiates our administrative machinery. It is heartening to see the district administration filly initiating some kind of action to control prices. People who do not go vegetable shopping may not be aware that the prices of many vegetables doubled during the last two weeks and that the price of meat and poultry also went up by about 25 to 30 per cent. It is doubtful if gunning for small retailers instead of going for the main traders is likely to yield any results. The political executive is unlikely to achieve anything in this regard. People pin their hopes on the district administration, but the problem is whether the political bosses will even let them go for the big fish. In fact, many of the middlemen who make a cushy living off someone else’s earnings are actually members of the ruling party. turally, people cannot help wondering whether the brouhaha about high prices is going to end up as some kind of an empty ritual.