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Open letter to the next Prime Minister: Failure of leadership is root cause of India's problems

Tuesday, 13 May 2014 - 6:00pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

On May 16, the election results will be out. No matter who forms the government, the next prime minister will face serious policy issues. dna features a series of open letters addressed to the next prime minister written by experts in various fields. These will act as important inputs in the policy decisions of the government.

Honourable Prime Minister,

You have been given the responsibility by the people of India to improve their lives. They want opportunities for decent livelihoods, better public services, health, education and safety. They have lost faith in most institutions of governance and administration. Indeed, the deterioration in the country's institutions is also the root cause of the declining growth of the economy. Investors are wary of starting or expanding enterprises when there is so much confusion and corruption in governance. The scenario analysis made by the Planning Commission in 2012 revealed that the root cause of the poor progress the country is making, which is neither meeting its needs nor the aspirations of its citizens in improving human development, building infrastructure, growing the economy and creating more jobs, is the deep mistrust citizens and investors have in the country's institutions. Indeed, it was estimated by the Commission that fixing this root cause could add about 3% to GDP growth.

The root cause of the deterioration of our institutions is a failure of leadership. So-called 'leaders' sit atop institutions with important titles bestowed on them. For them, institutions are only pedestals from which they can speak, and on which they can be seen. They do not care to improve the substance of the institutions they are responsible for. Nor are they being held to account for failing to discharge this vital responsibility to the people.

Honourable Prime Minister, you must make an agenda to fix some important institutions. Place people atop them who citizens (and you) will trust. Charge these persons with developing a plan to reform their institutions. And visibly monitor the progress they make so that citizens and investors can have confidence that at long last someone is doing something forcefully to improve institutions. This is not a 100-day exercise. But bold steps, in the right direction, must be visible within 100 days. In some instances, where there are incumbents and you cannot appoint others yet, you can demand that the incumbents apply themselves to improve the quality of the institutions they are supposed to lead, or face the consequences.

Institutional transformation, even with a good plan, can take three to five years. The present HR system of government must be changed to enable people to lead and change institutions for a reasonable time, and not just for the year or two that the present seniority-based system results in. Indeed, the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission had made some important recommendations for reforming the civil services including more rigorous performance evaluation, and up-or-out with lateral inductions also at senior levels.

Please restore the autonomy of the government-supported institutions that should be run professionally. They are a vital part of our governance system. These include various commissions and regulators, bodies like the National Productivity Council and Quality Council of India, and our PSEs too. There is too much interference by ministries in these and many of them have become sinecures for retired bureaucrats.

Honourable Prime Minister, the fabric of governance of our large and diverse country, which is committed to democracy — that is government for, but also of and by the people — will never be strong if governance is not devolved to people closer to realities on the ground. Our Constitution wisely requires this, by giving powers to the states, and to local village and urban bodies too (by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution). However, the Centre, and people at the top of institutions, are holding on to power. You must put your weight behind a vigorous process of building up capacities in the states and in institutions on the ground to govern more effectively.

Last but not least, Honourable Prime Minister, you will have to insist that people collaborate with each other and you will have to pull up those who do not. We cannot make coalition governments an excuse for poor governance. Coalitions in government are likely to be around for quite a while. Improvement of governance cannot wait until some day when we have a unitary government again. We want improvement in public services and human development now. We want jobs now. We want faster growth now. Therefore, we need leaders now who can work with others and who inspire others to work in teams and demand that they do too.

Our hope is that you will transform our institutions and improve governance. The rest will follow.

(Arun Maira is the author of 'Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions', published by Rupa in May 2014 and member of Planning Commission)

(Send us your open letter to the next Prime Minister at dearnextpm@dnaindia.net. The selected ones will be featured on dnaindia.com. You can also tweet your suggestions with #DearNextPM)

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