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Minimum Government – Are we getting there?

Ever since Prime Minister Modi has taken office, his political opponents as well as the mainstream media have tried to analyze, debate and punch holes in this claim of “minimum government, maximum governance”. Various interpretations have been made based on prejudices and the topic has also been debated based on Modi’s tenure in Gujarat as well as his statements during speeches. My expectations were also much different than how it is turning out in the first seven months of Modi regime. Governance is a long drawn process and I will hold my views on that. In the meantime, let us evaluate the ‘minimum government’ part of this claim.

My theoretical understanding of ‘minimum government’ included eliminating some departments, canceling some social programs, downsizing workforce in governmental agencies, privatization of PSUs, government ceding control in some bodies and so on. Mainstream media has been fixated with the number of ministers in the Central Cabinet as the critical parameter for minimum government. Opposition parties have been throwing darts at everything, thus making it difficult to know their interpretation. Also, they do not seem to suggest a concrete alternative to this idea by PM Modi.

Let us analyze how the ‘minimum government’ plan has been playing on the ground, based on decisions made by the government. Below are very few examples that have been highlighted in the media:

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-One of the first decisions by Nirmala Sitaraman, Minister of State for Corporate Affairs, was to give a free hand to the companies regarding boiler inspection. This was an experiment done in Gujarat, which has been expanded to the national level.

Government decided to annul the requirement of gazetted officers’ attestation on non-original documents. Thus putting faith in the common man who ownsthe documents, than the one who signs on them without verification (more often than not).

-Recently, Ministry of Railways decentralized tender process and the zonal managers can now manage the process at their level, without the minister’s interference.

-In the weekend’s ‘GyanSangam’ meeting with the bankers, PM Modi assured government’s hands-off approach in the internal workings of the Public Sector Banks (PSBs). Unlike in the past, any merger decision will be made by the Board than the Finance Minister.

Apart from these, there have been other initiatives which haven’t been included in the ‘minimum government’ debates. However, I think these also fall into this group:

-Swachh Bharat Abhiyan(SBA): This has been an energetic initiative from the Modi government to improve cleanliness, thus reducing the reliance on Safaai Karmachaaris or our Municipal authorities in our daily lives. Apart from being a social cause, SBA has demonstrated the power of communities in implementing government programs. I will go as far as to say, SBA is a case study for “minimum government”. Apart from initiating the program with photo-ops, government has spent minimum from the exchequer. People have owned the program and are taking it forward. Needless to say, we are still long way from being a ‘Swachh Bharat’ to evaluate the success of the program. Though I am sure PM would have something up his sleeve to take it to the logical end. Till then, well begun is half done.

-Modernization of Railway stations: By inviting private players to spruce up the stations by offering services like hotels, shops, etc the government can focus on improving the train services. This would result in more optimal utilization of the space and giving more options to the passengers. When an airport can have these kinds of facilities, then why can’t a train passenger enjoy similar amenities? It’s unfortunate that this debate gets dragged into the usual privatization noise.

For us conservatives, there have been some negative surprises too. I fail to understand some decisions/non-decisions by the government:

-Absolutely nothing has been done with regards to privatization. We read reports of some roadshow intermittently. However, I don’t envisage any progress in this fiscal. I certainly hope that the Finance Minister is taking comfort in the fall in crude and commodity prices and has a long list of companies to offload to generate revenues in the next fiscal year.

-No decision has been forthcoming on the privatization of Air India. For how long will the governments keep feeding this baby? Neither service improves nor the finances – this is one baby that should be thrown out of the bathtub. There have been arguments that Air India has a social role too; like the ferrying of stranded Indians from Iraq, Libya, etc. I appreciate this concern. But wouldn’t it be cheaper to rent flights for these special missions? Or having only a small fleet of aircrafts on standby for these kinds of situations?

– Also, I have been disappointed that free-loading programs like MNREGA, subsidized Hajj trip, etc have not been eliminated. Yes, there are cutting around the edges. But, when will the government show its might? If a Congress led ‘coalition’ can introduce so many social programs, why can’t a government with ‘absolute majority’ revoke a few? (read postscript)

– Recently, the government decided to pump in 60Cr into IFCI Ltd to make it a government company. I fail to understand the reasoning behind this decision. What can an IFCI do that an IDFC or an ICICI cannot?

At this early stage of Modi era, there have been more hits than misses. I hope the only excuse for the misses is the lack of time. That would reassure conservatives that there is more to come. With the government’s focus on helping entrepreneurs, I hope there are some path breaking initiatives like no taxes till first 5 or 10 employees. Just imagine the impetus that would give to the new graduates to explore new avenues. However, let us start with just one page form to start a new company – thereby preventing running around offices before generating the first Rupee as revenue. Wouldn’t that be a great advertisement for ‘minimum government’?

Postscript: I get the point that passing legislations needs a big tent approach. I also appreciate PM Modi’s effort to build consensus for passing these legislations. I would just quote what former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” (Speech at Monash University, 10/6/81)”. My fear is, in the hope of satisfying those who inherently hate you, you may end up losing your core voters. Hope PM Modi understands that one cannot wake up a group that’s pretending to be asleep.

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