Measuring our Prime Minister by the Sociological transformation that he is trying to lead

September 9, 2014 1 comment

Many newspapers and TV channels are discussing the 100 days of the Modi Government. Every commentator on the subject seems to have a view on how the Government should or needs to be run. The byline Achche Din Aanewale Hain (the good days are coming) seems to mean different things to different people depending on who is using it. Very few comments have been objective and based on the context, the reality and empirical evidence. One needs to appreciate that measuring the performance of public agencies is a complex and long drawn process and cannot be ‘oversimplified’ by mere survey questions or dependent on the limited knowledge of professional TV commentators/journalists. 100 days is also too short to actually demonstrate any concrete change or impact. At best, one can only comment on the intent and the direction in which the Government intends to proceed in the coming months. But this being said, it is indeed frightening to understand how ‘vague expectations’ in the minds of the common people are now turning into ‘urgent demands’. A couple of recent incidents highlight how people are extending their own internalization of a personal problem into a larger societal one.

A few days ago, I was traveling by an auto in Mysore and got into a conversation with the driver. He was expressing his anger at the state of the roads in the city and despite the approaching Dasara, how little was done to improve them. He was angry that despite 100 days of the Modi Government, the roads had not improved at all. I was both amused and intrigued at how involved he was in a civic issue, but then how limited he was in analyzing the problem. For him, driving on the streets of Mysore was an everyday necessity, and the health of his auto and himself was directly related to the health of the roads. What was fascinating was how he was seeing this problem and whom he was holding responsible for the solution? My explanation that the local city corporation and in extension, the State Government (being responsible for the Dasara celebrations) were to be held accountable did not seem to make much impact on him. Another good friend was narrating how on a recent trip to Mumbai, he got talking to a taxi driver ferrying him around. The taxi driver was lamenting that the daily traffic jams he encountered in Mumbai showed no signs of easing, despite the Modi Government completing 100 days in office. Both these incidents may seem trivial to a few, but then aren’t they the reality for these people. It is indeed fascinating how both of them were interpreting ‘Acche Din’ and the concept of good governance. Each one of us will have our own ways of understanding and interpreting the change that was assured to the citizens of India, but is it fair to merely transfer these problems to a ‘messiah’ and wait for him to wave his magic wand. Would it be fair to measure the performance of the Central Government and the Prime Minister merely based on the problems that we confront as citizens at a local level and our perceptions of the ‘good days’ that was promised.

Let us take an unbiased look at some of the key decisions taken by the Prime Minister and his Government. These are issues that only the National Government can take, but are the ones the common man cannot immediately relate to on a daily basis. His first prominent step to overcome policy paralysis was to empower bureaucrats to take decisions and to make them accountable. Despite criticisms of centralization, he has taken on the onerous task of taking charge of Government business and is involved in monitoring all ministries. Considering the track record of his predecessor, this may seem gigantic, but this is essential keeping the urgency and importance of demonstrating both efficiency and effectiveness in governance. After a longtime, we saw parliament function well and exceed all efficiency parameters and the keenness to pass key legislations was noteworthy. Launching of Digital India and Financial inclusion reflected the Government’s commitment to not only inclusive growth but also the intent of not being technologically left behind. The improvement in the investment climate, the promised investment of the Japanese and Sensex growth are all positive indicators for the economy. The PM’s intent of his work speaking for itself rather than rely on media releases is also another good development for governance. Attempts to rejuvenate SAARC and the formation of the BRICS bank, firm stand at the WTO without succumbing to global pressures and the dissolution of an outdated Planning Commission are other successes.

But one needs to go beyond all these and into the process of citizen engagement and appreciate how a quiet but visible social transformation is now occurring in the country. With the swearing in of a new Government, the people of India have clearly and consciously communicated this social undercurrent in an electorally decisive manner. It is only natural for the people to seek an expression of their personal aspirations through a public response from the Government. This expectation is further compounded by the fact that they were hoping for ‘fireworks’ and a ‘magical panacea’ for the issues that mattered to them. The current demographics and the economic aspirations of a consumer hungry, restless and impatient young population add to this collective expectation. How can any one person, despite his best attempts be held responsible for all that the citizens face on a daily basis? Can the present Government be criticized for what every political party promises during every election that they face? Should our expectation based on the ‘Gujarat Model’ be extended to the rest of India too? Isn’t running a state government where you are in greater control of the delivery framework different in context from running a National Government mandated by the limitations that a federal structure bring with it? Is it just about Prime Minister Modi and his vision and commitment to the development of the Nation and its citizens or is there something more happening?

One cannot dispute the fact that the election of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India is itself evidence of the undercurrent social transformation that the country is now going thru. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that an ‘outsider’ like Modi from a very humble background and from one of the backward castes of India and without any ‘dynastic’ connections come to occupy the highest post in the country. The very shaping of the history of the nation today is outpacing the ability of the people to orient themselves in accordance with the established and existing societal values – whether it be caste, class or political dynasty. One needs to recognize that the older ways of feeling and thinking are collapsing and the newer beginnings are seemingly ambiguous and possibly threatening to the traditionalists. The ordinary people are at a point where they are feeling that they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are confronted on a daily basis. Their repertoire of solutions is no longer sufficient to overcome the problems that they are now faced with. It is only natural that when they cannot find and understand the meaning of their own lives, they will look to find it by connecting to a person like Modi to find meaning not only for their own existence but also for their everyday problems to be solved.

My own assessment from my conversation with the auto driver and his refusal to accept information about the role of citizens in civic issues and how local issues need to be addressed locally is different. I feel that it is not only information that people need – in this digital age; information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that people need – although their struggles to acquire these in the backdrop of their everyday struggles often exhaust their limited energies. What they need is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. Is this practically feasible? Will this ever happen in this country? I believe that the Prime Minister should be judged not merely by his ‘Governance’ achievements but also by his ability to inspire our fellow countrymen to acquire these capabilities. If his public speeches on Independence Day or his interaction with children on Teacher’s Day are any indication, I feel that he has already set himself to this onerous and more important task. His speeches have the undercurrent of relating to the personal uneasiness and explicit troubles of individuals (unemployment, price rise, cost of fuel, personal learning) and asking them to convert their indifference into involvement with public & National issues (Clean India Campaign, Clean Ganga, societal peace, harmony, moratorium on religious divisions). His conversation with the average citizen via social media and portals like MyGOV, or the engagement on radio that he is contemplating are reflections of his thinking. While he is continually exhorting the citizenry to engage, the people need to learn to shift their perspectives from the ‘personal’ to the ‘societal’ and they need to build their capacities in order to do so. The PM is subtly asking the citizens of India to enhance the width, depth and scope of their capacity to engage with matters concerning their own development. And it is now time to elevate citizenry engagement to this level. Not doing so will be a missed opportunity and we will only have ourselves to blame, but sadly we will end up blaming the Prime Minister and his government. To be able to grow this capacity needs enormous sociological imagination. The Prime Minister seems to be showing this, but are we the common people matching upto this imagination? Only time can tell.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

Talk given at Dharmasthala

August 26, 2014 Comments off

This is the audio recording of the talk that was given by me at Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala to the Directors and senior faculty of RUDSETI, in the presence of the Dharmadhikari, Sri Veerendra Heggade on the 13th August, 2014.

Categories: General

Being an optimist in Mysore…

August 1, 2014 5 comments

I have lived all my life with a great deal of optimism and hope. Many a time, close friends have argued that I am only blinded by my belief in the message of positivism, hope and optimism that Swami Vivekananda rendered and was not being a realist. Till recently, I would put up strong objections to this view. But of late, I am rather forced to reconsider the reality that exists today in India generally and in Mysore specifically. The dictionary would define an ‘Optimist’ as a person who never ceases to give up hope in something that they believe.  The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation.  Having lived through very difficult and impossible situations for decades, especially with some amazing indigenous tribal communities, I could never imagine that I would now start doubting whether ‘good times will actually come’. I will not be ambitious in talking about the larger national issues and would like to focus on what we as Mysoreans are subject to, on an everyday basis. Just a year ago, the optimist in me was happy that a seasoned administrator from our district became Karnataka’s chief minister. Having known his abilities and no-nonsense attitude, I had hoped that ‘good times’ had surely come to the city of Mysore. With a year having gone by, I have to now re-calibrate how I feel based on the reality that surrounds all of us.

Driving around in the city is an adventure by itself. Potholes would indeed be a misnomer to describe the gaping craters that are now the norm. My faith in god and my views on being lucky has been exponentially enhanced considering that I drive on the ring road each day. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the roads of Mysore as real-time, hands-on training in survival.   One has to only travel on the KRS road and the ring road section from the KRS road towards Hunsur road to believe what I write. Despite all the valiant efforts that the police team headed by a sensible Police Commissioner is putting in, nothing much seems to have changed. Let us look at the simple helmet rule. Standing at a signal light, I found 2 young girls on a scooter going to their college waiting for the lights to turn green beside me. I looked at them and politely reminded them that they should consider wearing a helmet as their heads had to be safe too. The pillion rider was quick to snub me and retort that it was her head and not mine. As though this was not enough, I saw three young men whizzing past unmindful of the fact that the light was still red. I approached the police constable standing nearby and asked him why was he standing their doing nothing. His answer was a rude reminder of his helplessness. He bemoaned that people no longer feel it is important to be law-abiding nor fear the consequences of not being so. He asked me if I was unaware of recent incidents where people in a particular part of the city gheraed the police personnel and the police station for doing their job on the streets of Mysore. And then he went on to add that it would take just 15 minutes for him to be called by a local politician or his son, chiding him for minding his business of policing. It is no longer about the police making the citizenry feel safe; it is now about the citizenry making the police feel safe and secure in going about doing what the city desperately needs. As though all this was not enough to teach me the lesson of grinning and bearing it, I had to chide another set of people who had decided that their scooter could not only carry three people and a huge parcel but can zoom down on the wrong side of the road too. Imagine my surprise, when the pillion rider whose son was riding this scooter without a helmet (and possibly without a license too as he seemed younger than 18 years) stare me down and ask me whether I was the newly appointed local policeman. With parents like this who are poor and negative role models for their children, how long can one hope to be an optimist?

Helmet less driving on a potholed road in Mysore

A pot hole or a crater?


As I continued my road adventure feeling impotent, helpless and frustrated, I had to be mindful of not driving over a stinking rivulet of sewage flowing down the ring road. And the irony of the situation was that this overflowing manhole is located exactly opposite the Karnataka Pollution Control Board. I am not sure if the KSPCB is trying to advertise the fact that pollution is a reality that we need to contend with or merely reminding us of what happens when civic administration breaks down. It does’nt seem to matter that the Chief Minister and few other political heavy weights in his cabinet have their residences in this city.

Not being able to absorb the morning’s adventure, I decided that a good refreshing walk would calm me down and re-charge my spirit of optimism. I could not have been more wrong. What greeted me as I entered the local park was parthenium, slush and tobacco smoke from the beedies that a few urchins decide to try out. As I stood desperately looking for the walkway, I realized that all that my walk in this park would do was to further increase my melancholy. So much for the lung spaces of this city. I decided to take my morning walk the next day at the Kukkarahalli lake. While the University of Mysore who owns it, is trying to do a good job of its maintenance, I am sure that they too feel helpless in not being able to prevent the sewage and sullage that is being let into the lake.   In a few years from now this lake will only serve as a symbol of the inaction and indifference of not just the civic authorities but also the citizenry who are enjoying the walk around the lake today.  One of my friends who was walking along with me was bemoaning the fact that 2 local government officials belonging to one of the regulatory departments was insisting on a bribe from him. He was mentioning how business nowadays could just not be ethical even if one wanted it to be. He was one of those who followed all the rules laid down, but saw no incentive in doing so. He mentioned that it was easier to be part of a corrupt system than try to be an honest rule-abiding business man.   How does one convince oneself that we are in for good times, when honesty get dis-incentivized and street smartness is all about beating the system and manipulating it to one’s own personal advantage.

If I were to narrate all my experiences over the last month or so, this column may well become a book. Every one of us would have seen or experienced something similar. It does not take a long time even for a hardcore optimist like me to be worn down by the negativism, apathy and ‘it does not concern me’ kind of an attitude. Civic agencies, government officials, the political and business class and we the people have to all come together to ensure that we all stay optimistic of the city’s future. We need to understand that human progress can be noteworthy only if it is built on the solid foundation of good governance, citizen engagement, democratic principles and value-based leadership. Is anybody listening?


Categories: Musings

Appreciating the Election Commission of India

July 22, 2014 2 comments

It is now more than 2 months since the results to the Lok Sabha elections were declared.  Many of us are now looking at the post election scenario and have been caught up in the mood for change and the many decisions that the new Government is taking.  Very few of us give a thought to the people who made the transition of government at the national level so smooth and devoid of any major turbulence.  Only when we compare what is happening in Afghanistan or in Indonesia where elections were also held around the same time but the results are yet to be formally announced, will we understand the significance of the enormous task that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has undertaken be understood.   Ever since the first general elections was held in 1952 to the recent one this year, the ECI has conducted itself admirably and with little or no public appreciation.  In fact, we are quick to criticize them for everything from enforcing the model code of conduct, to partisanship to inaction after poll violations have been reported.  As I sat a few weeks ago discussing with Mr. Sampath, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, I felt that it was time for us to understand how and what the ECI did to ensure a free and fair election this year.

The Enormity of the Electoral process:  One can appreciate the enormity of the electoral process only when we come to appreciate that 834 million people were eligible to vote in this elections.  This was 120 million more than the number of people who could vote in 2009.  There were 0.923 million polling stations and required 4-5 persons per polling station along with the EVMs to conduct the elections. This is apart from the large number of security personnel drawn from the central police and para-military forces.  We need to see this in comparison to the fact the number of voters in India far exceeded the number of voters in all the European countries and the United States put together.  Keeping the geographical spread of the country and the need to ensure that the elections had to be conducted in a free and fair manner amidst proper security with the fair enforcement of the model code of conduct; the elections were held over 9 phases between the 7th April and the 12th of May.  And we need to remember that the general elections till 1962 were all one-day affairs.  The date of announcement of the general elections was made by the Chief Election Commissioner on the 5th of March and followed up within 2-3 weeks by the Presidential notification formally kick starting the process.   The counting from the EVM machines used was done on a single day on the 16th of May and the results nation wide was known by 2 p.m.  This was surely the largest democratic exercise held anywhere in the world.  This quick declaration of results also ensured a smooth transition of power.

Using EVMs:  The Electronic Voting Machines are all made in India and are now becoming a regular feature in all our elections.  They have been an object of criticism from the time they were introduced. In the words of the CEC himself, “Earlier political parties which lost the elections used to criticize the use of EVMs; now we have moved on to only a few candidates criticizing them.”   Apart from carrying the names and symbols of each of the candidates, they also now have the ‘None of the above’ (NOTA) option.  The EVMs are always kept in physical custody in sealed godowns before and after the elections.   Checking them begins 6 months before the elections and they are all shown to each of the political parties by the district administration all over the country.  5% of the machines used across the nation are tested and checked thoroughly for their functionality.  As a 2nd level measure, the candidate settings are checked before the polls and the agents at each polling booth can also perform agent checks. At 6 a.m on the day of the polls, the final check is done in front of the candidate or his representative by undertaking 50 button presses and only then is the machine finally used in the polls.

Model Code of Conduct:  The Model code of conduct is a uniquely Indian innovation in the electoral process and comes into force the day the CEC announces the calendar of events.  This is to facilitate a level playing field and prevent the party in power to indulge in what can be construed as an attempt to induce or influence the voter by different means.  Our politicians are also becoming cleverer and have started offering inducements much before the elections are announced.  Many candidates know that they are likely to be nominated by their parties and begin to canvass and offer different inducements to the electorate much earlier itself.

Monitoring the election process:  Such a large exercise can truly be a nightmare to monitor and ensure that it is free and fair.  A large number of reliable and impartial personnel are needed to do this.  The ECI uses its constitutional powers to draw personnel from different states and at many levels to ensure this.  The ECI has now introduced the concept of observers.  To ensure political neutrality and that they are not coerced to perform in a particular way, the observers are not posted to the states of origin or work.  There are two kinds of these 1200 observers – General observers who observe the general conduct and the Expenditure observers who watch over the expenses incurred by the candidates.   The campaigning as well as the actual voting across the country is also videographed and the digital records stored by the ECI.  The entire campaigning is recorded in a Shadow Observation Register and the activities undertaken by the candidates for the period between 14-21 days is fully recorded.  The election authorities reconcile this register with the information provided by the candidate after the polling is over.   Aggrieved candidates can submit a election petition within 45 days of the results being announced to the local High Court, which functions as the Election tribunal. Security to the entire machinery and the process is provided by a large number of personnel drawn from CISF, CRF and the state police and the Armed Reserve Police.  As a policy, the military is not used in providing security during the elections.

Innovations used in the 2014 General Elections:  The ECI is constantly trying to ensure that more and more citizens involve themselves in the election process. We must bear in mind that voter enrolment in India is voluntary and voters can only be motivated to participate by appealing to their sense of citizenship.  The ECI had introduced the SVEEP campaign through their own machinery and with the help of NGOs and CSOs across the country and this has surely helped increase the voter participation to an all time high in the country.   The ECI also ensured the provision of voter ID slips to the voters at the booth level itself and gave repeated opportunities for them to verify their names and other relevant details.  Providing the signed printout of the voter card with the photo of the voters and permitting their use, as a Voter ID card in this election was another first.  The Election Commission also extended the working hours and voting began at 7 a.m and went on till 6 p.m.  The presiding officers were also instructed to keep the polling booths open till the last person in line (at 6 p.m) got to vote.  All the polling booths were also provided with basic amenities for the personnel and in line with the Supreme Court directions, a few polling stations had the voter verifiable paper trails created.

Challenges in front of the ECI: Despite all that is being done, the ECI does face many challenges.  Sustaining voter interest & motivation in a growing population is no easy task, especially when voter cynicism easily creeps in.  Ensuring updated rolls and inclusiveness is a real challenge and we had situations (in Mumbai and other places) where large numbers of people were excluded from the rolls.  Dependence on physical forces to monitor and ensure security is also another huge challenge.  The election commission needs to move on to other monitoring methods, especially as the campaign environment is now evolving with advances in digital technology and social media.  The ECI was also challenged this time in selecting local partners to work with in SVEEP campaigns as some of them had political affiliations. Sustaining the independence of the ECI is also another key issue for the ECI.  The Commissioners are appointed by the political system and they need to ensure the standards set are kept up without fear or favour to anyone.  Article 324 gives them Constitutional protection and an impeachment process can only remove the Commissioners and this should ensure that they function with total independence.  As monitoring methods evolve, so do the voter inducements given by the candidates and the parties.  The election commission needs to appreciate that voters are willingly participating in accepting the inducements and curtailing them is going to be a major challenge.  Ensuring that ruling parties do not offer inducements, as state patronage is also another issue.  The ECI has traditionally been distant from the citizens and political parties and they need to over haul their PR and Communication strategies.  They need to ensure that their actions are widely disseminated and voter engagement has to go beyond being mere events during elections to a sustained democratic process in between elections too. They need to work with the Government of the day in removing the dichotomy of laws with reference to technology, Internet, Television and usage of Social media.  And finally we need to remember that our politicians carry no scruples when it comes to winning the elections and the ECI must be in a state of constant evolution and one step ahead of them in dealing with them and giving us a free and fair election process.

General Elections in India are easily the world’s largest democratic dance.  Conducting them smoothly is indeed a tribute to our system and to the millions of Indians who make it possible each time. Integrating the lessons of interdepartmental convergence, coordination and efficiency that our elections demonstrate in other public services too will surely take our country to the next level.

- Balu

Categories: Musings

Talk given at the Deccan Herald-Jnana Degula event at Bangalore on the 24th May, 2104

July 9, 2014 Comments off
Categories: General

An article about SVYM in Outlook magazine, July 7, 2014

June 29, 2014 Comments off
Categories: Articles in Press