LIEUTENANT Governor of Puducherry Dr Kiran Bedi has been correctly slammed for her diktat that distribution of free rice to the poor in Puducherry will be conditional upon villages being certified free of open defecation and free of “strewn garbage and plastic”. The wild order, announced on her Twitter handle and spelt out in a letter to the Chief Minister V Narayanasamy, must be preserved and studied for its irresponsibility, arrogance, and the sense of entitlement of a person who has essentially been given a post-retirement sinecure after being served a stinging defeat at the hustings by the people of Delhi. The letter stands out as an instrument of colonial control issued by a person who is clearly in service of masters other than the people of the Union territory of Puducherry while drawing her salary and perks from the public exchequer.
A mindset of command
That the order stands suspended after a wave of angry responses from all sections of society should come as no solace. Under immense pressure, the Lt Governor has beaten a hasty retreat but the words used to make the retreat help reconfirm a mindset of command and control that must be called out and condemned for the way it tramples the very idea of democratic systems and processes. As reported, the Lt Governor has said she is “withholding” her earlier communications, and “I am happy to give them more time” and “certain responsibilities have to be learnt. I did not say that I will deny them food. I used the word conditional.”
“Them” are the ignorant subjects, it would seem, to whom “I”, the master, has allowed some extra time to behave if they want rations!
There is little merit in arguing that this was not the intention of the Lt Governor. The attitude shines through and has indeed been a pattern during her time in the Puducherry Raj Niwas; it is the subtext of an approach that has been criticised by the elected Congress government of the UT. The Chief Minister, who is the true custodian of the mandate of the people, has pointed out that “she cannot issue any formal order and implement it without consulting us… In the past too, she has returned several files on the free rice scheme by raising flimsy queries.”
The controversy and the fact that Dr Bedi is a BJP pick for a post of Lt Governor in the south of the country carries the additional burden of being framed into a north-south battle at just the time the nation can ill-afford this; southern states have already come together to oppose the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission, which they argue will penalise them for managing their population better than the states in the north of India. One of the points of criticism against Dr Bedi was that the northern cities, including Delhi, are equally unclean if not dirtier, and asks the simple question: would the governments there even think of stopping free PDS or making it conditional?
All of this noise raises tensions in Puducherry, strains the relations between the elected government and the Lt Governor and brings the Centre as well a bad name. In her apparent zeal to please the BJP and somehow achieve targets of central schemes like Swachh Bharat, the Lt Governor may have actually done a disservice to the BJP. Roughshod ways rarely work well in India’s democracy; the electoral loss in New Delhi at a time the BJP was otherwise riding high was also attributed in part to the individual methods and style of Dr Bedi.
Dr Bedi’s overreach is part of a larger disease of arrogance coupled with ignorance among the ruling elite of the ways in which governance and development plays out in the complex socio-economic politico canvas of India. And because copious energy is being spent from the very top in New Delhi on keeping the pot boiling, raising the temperature and fueling a divide, the gravitas and engagement required to understand what is at stake is lacking. The past has to be stamped out, it seems, and in the process an aggressive, pseudo-machismo outlook is encouraged, rewarded and therefore delivered by more and more in the establishment. There is little incentive or energy left to learn and lead responsibility.
Poverty and growth
The problem was always there. Sections of the middle class never really understood the nuances of complex issues like poverty, the caste conflict or why our development indices have been so poor even as the nation crowed about economic growth. The problem is worse with the ruling elite who have lately assumed control of important governance structures. Consider that it was none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi attributed stunted growth and malnutrition in Gujarat to the middle class being beauty and figure conscious rather than health conscious. He did it again when he compared Kerala to Somalia and invited the wrath of a state that is in many ways a model for public healthcare systems. Yogi Adityanath did the same when he said hospitals in Uttar Pradesh were better run than those in Kerala.
These are not accidental slippages. They show a mind determined to pick out those seen as rivals and to beat them down. They give fillip lower down the line to the likes of Dr Bedi and a host of others who are therefore encouraged to think that this will draw attention and bring rewards. It skews all policy making and drives it in undesirable directions. In that sense, the tweets, the statements and exchanges from Puducherry point us to a slide that is deeper.
A good way to break from this pattern will be for senior policy leaders and government functionaries from the very to top call out the order of Dr Bedi, to restrain her and to assure the elected government in Puducherry that violations of this kind do not have the Centre’s support.
Who cannot agree that our democratic nation must be ruled by a leader who won an election five years ago, not a bureaucrat who passed an exam 40 years ago.
The Billion Press