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Sunday, February 16, 2003

“If large-scale corruption is detected in any municipality, the government will not hesitate to initiate severe action, including dissolving the elected body. Public representatives are mistaken if they think they can fleece the people and remain indifferent to their problems” – this is a report of CM’s outburst carried in a newspaper. The CM was understandably annoyed on seeing garbage strewn all over the place on his surprise visit to Rajendra Nagar. He hauled up both the municipal chairman and the Municipal commissioner.

About the same time, newspapers also reported that during a videoconference review of the health department, the CM instructed the health minister and concerned officials to fire a doctor in Khammam district for failure to discharge his duties. This will surely be as effective as King Canute’s admonition to the waves!

The CM is right in telling the people to be more vigilant, to be more assertive - that they should demand and get proper service from their municipality in matters related to roads, drains, garbage, water, street lighting and a few other services expected of it. He was also right in his response to a citizen’s complaint about the traffic problem “I alone cannot do everything. Your mayor is here, talk to him.” He was also right in saying that all elected representatives are answerable to the people. When people complained that many a time their complaints went unheeded, he rightly told them to hold a dharna in front of their offices. All this is a step in the right direction towards citizen empowerment. As long as the citizens are told that it is their right to get certain services from the government, that the public servants cannot get away with corruption, that they are accountable to them, such candour is refreshing.

But there are two disturbing inferences that could be drawn from the above incidents. First, the CM wants to deliberately undermine the members of his cabinet and local governments and an image is sought to be created in the public eye that while he gets the credit for anything good that happens in the state, the ministers, local governments, legislators and officials get the blame for whatever bad might be happening! Even a small office or organization cannot run on this basis of “heads, I win; tails, you lose”! Organization building, teamwork and delegation are the basic principles of modern functioning – from households to corporate bodies; and from local governments to national agencies. Unfortunately some of our chief ministers are so puffed up by their own self-importance that they put medieval autocrats to shame and behave like modern-day Nizams. That may impress gullible and wide-eyed citizens who are easily swayed by theatrics and cinematic gestures. But it is only on the celluloid that a painted ‘hero’ brings about dramatic transformation through the flick of the fingers or a passionate dialogue (scripted by someone else) or a song and dance sequence. Real life and democratic governance demand respect for all players at various levels, and deep understanding of and faith in the democratic culture.

The second inference is that elected local governments are irrelevant, they exist at his pleasure and he can arbitrarily dismiss them at will. Local governments happen to be elected by the same citizen whose wisdom is extolled when electing the national government, and the same voter whose foresight is praised when electing the state government. The national and state governments have persistently belied our hopes and have been habitually indulging in corruption, nepotism, short-term populism and gross incompetence. And yet, we, the citizens, have been patiently indulgent of them.

We want democratically elected governments not because the leaders are wise and omnipotent, but because they acquire legitimacy with our mandate, and can be held to account by us, We want empowered local governments not because they are repositories of wisdom and virtue, but because the closer they are to us, the easier it is for us to resist their misgovernance and compel better performance. If dismissal of elected governments is the only recourse available for every misdeed, how many state governments can survive the test? If the union government threatens to invoke Article 356 against every state at the drop of a hat, will the chief ministers remain calm and unaffected? And who is there to dismiss the union government for its failures? No amount of hectic activity can be a substitute to solid achievement. And solid results can never be accomplished by firmans and diktats of a centralized authority. Strengthening of institutions, empowerment of people, delegation of powers and instruments of accountability are the keys to improving things. Will our heads of governments, self-important leaders, and pompous public servants realise this simple truism?

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