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Wanted: a Smart Government

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in an unenviable position. The people who voted him in expect him to make drastic and substantial changes to India’s trajectory and the people who did not vote him are waiting to pounce on every single morsel that falls during his tenure. By now, the honeymoon period for his Government is well and truly over, and the gloves are off. Patience is wearing thin, even among the people who voted for him.

There have been many positives in the term of this Government. Jan Dhan Yojana, an ambitious scheme which can revolutionise banking in India and also eliminate corruption in Government schemes, has kicked off. Coal Auctions have been conducted in a very transparent manner. FDI is increasing, thanks to push from Make In India. Arguably Independent India’s biggest tax reform, GST, has been put on the fast track. Considerable efforts have been put to develop India’s relations with other countries. All these are big measures and the Government has been smart and diligent in achieving these. But there are some areas where the Government has floundered. Although small, these issues have somehow become the defining characteristic as fas perception is concerned.

Choosing the right battles

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It is said, one must choose one’s battles wisely. The Government sadly has chosen some battles which they should not have. Censor Board, FTII, War on Porn are all examples. In all three cases, there is definitely some Government action needed. Censor Board should move to becoming a Certification board, as its official name suggests. FTII is riddled with overstaying students, unending courses and general malaise. Child Porn and Revenge Porn are serious issues which need to be tackled. But are all of these burning issues? Censor Board and FTII can be revamped in a slow and steady manner. The matter of Porn is still in discussion at the Supreme Court level. Was there a need for the Government to go overboard on all three issues?

Knowing when and how to fight

Further the Government response to all these issues has been ranging from obstinate to plain stupid. The Censor Board members themselves objected to Nihalani’s moral policing. But he is still the chief. FTII students, Governing Council members and general people from Bollywood objected to Gajendra Chauhan. He is still there. The Supreme Court never asked the Government to ban porn of any kind. It only asked a response. What did we do? We banned it (and then tried to “unban” some part of it by passing the baton on to ISPs). Were these intelligent responses? No.

A UPA Government would have acted differently. If it needed to take over or revamp some institutions, it would do it slowly and quietly, by appointing an acceptable figure as the chief (unlike Chauhan), and carrying on their work systematically. On issues like Porn ban, UPA has already set the tone during its term. Ministers like Sachin Pilot had gone on record saying they would ban porn IF directed by the Supreme Court, thereby very smartly shifting the blame on the Supreme Court, whenever that happens. The current Government’s responses though have been far from ideal.

Controlling the narrative

What compounds the above problems is the Government’s non-existent control on the narrative. That media will go after you is a given. How you effectively counter the media is upto you. The Government has sorely failed here. While some of the above actions were indefensible, at least better attempts could have been made to salvage at least some part of the lost goodwill. Issues plaguing Censor Board and FTII could have been aggressively highlighted. In some places, a step back could have been taken, forcing the opposition to also slow down. None of this has happened.

Hurting the BJP’s newly found voter base

A new entrant and a substantial one, to BJP’s voter base was the young Indian. Educated, below 35 years of age, looking for jobs and online. This section of the electorate, voted for Modi for his positivity. What they get instead is encroachment of some the areas they like. No one like their favourite movies being tampered with. Neither does anyone like the idea that legal porn is being banned under the poorly given excuse of “Child Porn”. The media reporting and the non-existent Government defence only add fuel to this fire. For this crowd, Jan Dhan Yojana, Coal Auctions of even GST do not make any real difference. So they see the Government from the narrow prism of what affects them. And this will hurt BJP electorally.

Signs of Change

But all may not be lost. There are some signs slowly emerging that show the Government is ready to reconsider some of their decisions. The Government has effectively U-Turned on the Land Bill, in the hope that other bills like GST may get safe passage. There has been a rethinking on the Porn ban, although even this rethinking is not very “smart”. It is not a crime to go back on your decision owing to general sentiment or to cut losses. But sticking on to a stand which doesn’t really politically benefit you is stupidity. Doing good for the FTII for example is a move which will reap almost no political dividend, but the current stance is only reducing the goodwill.

The Government become “Smart” and must understand: where it needs to enter the battlefield, how it should fight, when it should retreat, and most importantly how the battle is reported in the media. Only then it can manage to be in the good books, at least perception wise, of its voters.

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