How the state can make life easier
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- 10 years of RTI : While the government is willing, officials are not
Narendra Modi, arguably one of India's best performing chief ministers, recently deflected questions about his career plans by quipping that "10 good chief ministers are more important for India's destiny that one good prime minister", and that "anti-incumbency is just another name for non-performance". His statements recognised three new truths in state-level politics: first, that the Central alibi — no money or permission from Delhi — is increasingly ineffective in state elections; second, the next wave of public policy impact does not lie in poetry, but plumbing, because voters recognise that state governments control delivery systems; and third, most voters in state polls hold their noses while voting because candidates are often indistinguishable and weak.
Legislating at the intersection of state and Central governments is treacherous — Exhibit A and B are the GST rollout and labour law reform. But many state governments are losing the opportunity to use technology, in areas fully under their control, to remove the daily frustrations of voters. The Central government, meanwhile, has effectively used technology to re-engineer its few citizen interfaces — passports, income tax and railway reservations. This revolution is real — India became the first country in the world, in May 2012, where mobile internet crossed desktop internet usage.
But execution by state governments is handicapped by two birth defects: the low accountability of the executive to state legislatures and the perverse incentives and motivations of party workers. Low accountability arises because most state legislatures don't meet often enough for any attention to detail; annual legislative business days in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are 18, 16, 14 and 30 days annually. The second problem arises because party workers, the backbone of politics, are not unified by ideology or vision but sharing the spoils of power. Any party that stays out of power for long, like the Congress in UP and Bihar or the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, sees party workers disappear and the organisation disintegrate. But there is an emerging alternative to this low-level equilibrium of state politics — most Indians are moving beyond subsistence, voters are less swayed by promises that can't be kept, and despite Delhi's self-obsession, all politics is local. An ambitious and bold chief minister can use technology in many areas that would measurably change daily lives. Of a long list, four are listed below.