Better than BJP, but no great shakes

The challenges an average state faces today are too much for an average leader. An average leader can put up only average performance.

ongress Government in Karnataka led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah completed 1000 days in office in the first week of February.   With the decisive 55 per cent of its five-year term now over, it is the time for the government to look back, introspect and plan for the remaining time. That is something hardly any government in India ever does. All the governments instead try to convince the people that they have done their best.

Let us first admit that there is no clearly defined criterion for assessing the performance of a government or a chief minister. Even when a worst regime headed by a corrupt leader is in power some routine works are done. Similarly, even the best possible regime under the best available politician leaves the ordinary citizens with a sense of discontent about their immediate concerns having not been addressed. This makes it extremely difficult to judge the performance of a government. Yet, certain things are obvious about the current dispensation.

Better than BJP, but no great shakes-1The Congress rule so far has not been as deplorable as the previous BJP rule for the comparable period, at least visibly. The BJP regime in the first three years was rocked by a series of scams and scandals. Several ministers had to quit ignominiously. The government had been bogged down by an unending stream of dissident activities which saw the exit of its first chief minister by the end of third year. The SiddaramaiahGovernment has not disappointed the people on such a drastic scale. But at the same time, it has not left them terribly impressed either. There is something lackluster about its performance. There is a feeling among the people that it has not yet taken off and now they also seem to be losing the hope that it would ever do.

Jaded trajectory

In fact,it is intriguing that the Congress government’s trajectory should look so jaded. It had all the advantages that a government could ask for. First, the BJP rule had left the state with such a bad taste on this government’s part would have made it shine much brighter. Absence of any major political dissidence has been the second advantage for this government. To add to this the Congress High Command has been weak after the party’s debacle in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A weak High Command means less interference. In the absence of any such major political challenge, it has had all the time one could ask for to focus on administration. Moreover, there has been no other powerful chief minister in the country during this period to eclipse the image of Siddaramaiah as chief minister. He could have earned the tag of the Best Chief Minister in India with very little effort. To top it all, Siddaramaiah enjoyed the image of a tough leader which he could have used to take some bold decisions. In whichever way one looks at it, this government had a golden opportunity to put up a great show but now it seems it is an opportunity forgone unless the government bucks up and works for an image transformation in the remaining 45 per time left in its term.

 

Plainly unfair

Some critics have begun to argue that but for its saga of corruption, the BJP regime had been a better performer when compared to the record of Siddaramaiah’sgovernment. That seems plainly unfair and uncharitably sweeping. The two regimes can be compared in two ways. First, a comparison of negatives. Here the Congress Government scores over the BJP regime as the latter presided over the worst forms of corruption in every possible sectors. That does not mean that corruption is absent under the current regime. Corruption is a constant across the regimes. One only talks about how far the corruption graph has visibly soared from the normal threshold. The second form of comparison is that of positives. Here, it seems both regimes are equally good or equally bad. Neither of them has to its credit anything spectacular or substantive which keeps the long-term interests of the state in mind. To be fair to Siddaramaiah Government, it did initiate a few such measures but has not shown any tenacity in taking them to their logical end. For example, its plan to restructure Bengaluru’s administration in order to give a facelift to the city which is crumbling under multiple pressures is indeed imaginative. However, except for appointing a committee headed by former chief secretary B S Patil, which has given a fantastic roadmap for re-invigorating the city and its administration, it seems to be doing nothing further, at least so far. Of course, the government can claim credit for routine steps such as infrastructure projects and infusing into the City Corporation more and more funds much of which just evaporates in thin air.

Socio-economic survey

A second example is the decision to conduct the socio-economic survey of all the castes in the state. Irrespective of criticisms, this is a bold step. After all, what kind of measures the state can take in the absence of reliable data? However, the findings of the survey are yet to be out and the time is running out too. There is no point conducting a survey for its own sake, unless it is seen as part of a larger strategy to try out something new in socioeconomic planning. Examples like this are many. So, how can one explain the Siddaramaiah Government’s failure to live up to the expectations despite having all the advantages to be otherwise? The reasons for this may be numerous but two factors appear prominent.

Trodden path of populism

First, the Chief Minister seems to have been caught up in an ideological trap. It seems in his scheme of things what figures supreme is social justice. He wants history to remember him as a champion of the downtrodden and has been spending all his energy and imagination on this. There seems to be nothing wrong with it. In fact, the state needs a messiah of social justice at this stage. This does not necessarily come in the way of the Chief Minister’s or the government’s image. However, the problem seems to be that the Chief Minister has a very narrow idea of social justice. He has sought to defend several controversial decisions including appointment of persons with questionable integrity to several bureaucratic and political offices in the name of social justice, he seems to lack a strategy to make it part of an inclusive politics. He has taken the much trodden path of populism to achieve social justice, which is nothing but distribution of doles. This is a worn-out model of social justice which is neither good for the downtrodden nor is it good politics.

The down-trodden sections also harbor high aspirations these days and what would really uplift them are good education, adequate healthcare and ample economic opportunities. Siddaramaiah’s social justice model is silent on these. Instead, it obstinately clings to a stale mix of reservations, patronage and the usual doles.

Poverty of imagination

The Chief Minister had a golden opportunity to reform the Karnataka Public Service Commission (KPSC). Here too, he had initiated some measures but stopped short of anything bold or substantive.

What seems to have come in the way is his fear of social justice getting a short shrift if the KPSC becomes too unbiased and independent. Had he taken this one bold step of fortifying the KPSC beyond all kinds of pressures which have played havoc with administration, he would have endeared himself to lakhs and lakhs of youth who desperately try to get into government services year after year.

That his brand of social justice should come in the way of this reform is nothing but the poverty of imagination and thinking. He seems to be entertaining and encouraging corrupt officials again in the name of social justice. More than anything else, what needs to be realized is that if there is no growth, one can distribute only poverty.

The Chief Minister, preoccupied as he is with a narrow vision of social justice, has never come out with a bold agenda for development, which is so crucial to impress upon the burgeoning middle class voters who are also the opinion makers. The recent Global Investors’ Meet and the industrial policy which preceded it pushed the agenda of industrializing backward areas in a big way. That was commendable indeed but seemed too late and too little to lift the sagging image of the government.

Second, it seems there has been some exaggeration about the stuff that Siddaramaiah the leader is made up of. May be he is not all that people thought he is as a leader. May be he has been plain lucky in all his previous positions where his mettle was never tested. Now when he is in the saddle, there is no escape. His ability to think and act like a leader is put to test on a daily basis and there is nothing on record to show that his thoughts or actions are distinctly different from any other leader. And there lies the answer.

The challenges an average state faces today are too much for an average leader. An average leader can put up only average performance. Better performance calls for leaders made up of sterner stuff, in both intellectual and practical terms.

They need to be imaginative and in sync with the time.But the tragedy of the state seems to be that it can bank on no better leader at this stage. There is none whose image and track records offer a silver lining. The performance issue is but a smaller part of a larger leadership crisis which is not confined to the ruling Congress alone.

Well, Siddaramaiah and his team have a little more than two and a half years to prove all these wrong, if they want to.


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