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India’s changing instincts of governance

India’s changing instincts of governance

While GST was indeed a significant fiscal initiative, did it warrant such theatrical and over-the-top equivalences?

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Last Updated : 30 June 2024, 22:55 IST
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Even the most partisan but knowledgeable supporters of the ruling dispensation would concur with the initial design flaws, technology glitches, and unimagined complexities that followed the implementation of GST on July 1, 2017.

It was launched rather dramatically with pomp and pageantry at Parliament’s ‘midnight session’, symbolically putting it on par with three other occasions that such timings were used, i.e., the declaration of India’s independence and its silver and golden jubilees.

While it was indeed a significant fiscal initiative, did it warrant such theatrical and over-the-top equivalences? The intent behind ‘one nation, one tax, one market’ was indeed noble, but the fanfare accompanying it seemed unnecessary and in line with the accusation of turning every government decision into an ‘event management’ opportunity.

The serious pain that subsequently afflicted the largely unorganised, small-scale, and subsistence entrepreneurs raised many hard questions about their overall preparedness and authority insensitivity. But the government remained mesmerised with its ‘game changer’ and ‘ease of doing business’ narrative that it rode roughshod over any concerns pertaining to ham-handed implementation.

The following year, when much of the concerns still persisted, the undeterred and unmoved government went one-up to celebrate the day as ‘GST day’ — the unheard voices of petty traders seemingly didn’t count. The point that the unaddressed concerns were not about questioning the intent but of functional working was completely missed. The government was in no mood to brook any query, recourse, or suggestion (even though it made multiple changes itself), as it refused to publicly accept any missteps whatsoever.

The hubris seen in GST implementation was probably conditioned by a far greater rupture to the Indian economy with the sudden act of ‘demonetisation,’ a year earlier in 2016. While the public memory is short and much has been glossed over since, the disruption to normalcy and pain for the common citizens was unprecedented in its severity. Even individual deaths were linked to the mad rush to exchange currency notes.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had labelled it a ‘despotic action’, Chief Economist of the World Bank Kaushik Basu had called it a ‘major mistake’, Steve Forbes had slammed it as ‘sickening and immoral’, and a near unanimous consensus of almost all independent economists was that it debilitatingly regressed lives, livelihoods, and the economy.

But not so for the dispensation — this despite its own data that 99.3% of black money came back to the banking system, making it an epic failure. Yet, incredibly, the government refused to acknowledge the mistake and routinely changed the goal post of objectives, only to defend the indefensible. As if to complete the loop of bizarre perception management, this event too was celebrated a year later as ‘Anti-Black Money Day’. The government simply, brazenly, and haughtily refused to accept that it could ever err or need correction.

This attitude was in sharp contrast to the relative humility that dispensations of all ideological persuasions demonstrated in governance earlier.

As an example, the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report was constituted to review the debacle in the India-China War (1962); expectedly, it did not reflect well on either the conduct of senior leadership in the Armed Forces or on the dispensation of the day. Even the fantastic success of the Kargil War (government of the same ideological fount, as now) in 1999 led to an introspective Kargil Committee to “examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future.”

For the Vajpayee government, implicit in victory were still some hard lessons to be learned, course-corrected, and institutionalised for posterity. But no such spirit of constant learning, acknowledging mistakes, and improvising for the future has been demonstrated in recent years. The dispensation behaved infallible and beyond questioning, leading to situations where a clear ‘wrong’ still had to be persisted, simply because acknowledging a wrong was perceived to be politically emasculating.

Like ‘demonetisation’, yet another government initiative that had a ‘mistake’ written all over its construct and portent is ‘Agnipath’, a reformulated intake scheme for the Armed Forces. Mealy-mouthed and implausible reasons justifying it were posited, even though apolitical and unbiased military experts slammed its very conceptualization.

The real reasons (widely believed to be the ballooning pension bills) remained unspoken about, as an acknowledged financial skulduggery would not have built perceptions of partisan ‘muscularity’, especially in the backdrop of the wounded summer of 2020 on the India-China borders. Even supportive partisan loyalists within the veteran community were clearly uncomfortable but still suggested positivity and patience given the ostensible ‘experimentation’, ‘evolution’, and ‘out of box thinking’ that implied changing the status quo for decades.

That the inherent quality, performance, and youthfulness of the ‘Indian soldier’ had never been questioned in combat, why then was the move towards a supposed “younger military’ made? Against all known scientific principles of motivation, camaraderie, and team spirit that beset any top-performing organisation like the military, the Agnipath scheme persisted.

Today, thankfully, there are rarely heard murmurs of “open to changes” and “review,” signifying a hitherto unseen, unheard, or undemonstrated willingness to accept mistakes in the Agnipath construct. Though the government has come no way close to using the word “mistake,” pressures to relook (even completely abandon) Agnipath have gained currency, with the electorate sending a strong message to introspect various governance imperatives. A coalition partner has committed to “review” the scheme in its manifesto, and anyone with a modicum of knowledge of organisational behaviours and culture (let alone military matters) would suggest an urgent, unbiased, and honest “review” of its efficacy and long-term impact.

What is at test is not the assessment of the Agnipath scheme itself, as much as it is about the dispensation’s display of human ability to accept erring and self-correcting. So far, the leadership has displayed an arrogant and unrealistic image of unfailing and infallible decision-making, which is now under test, and not the functional evaluation of Agnipath. Without non-military reasons, Agnipath would simply not pass muster. Till the dispensation agrees to get down from its make-believe high horse of infallibility, the likes of Agnipath will continue.

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