Opinion Columnists 18 Apr 2021 Sanjaya Baru | Ideol ...
The writer is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Sanjaya Baru | Ideology or competence: What do the voters want?

Published Apr 19, 2021, 12:00 am IST
Updated Apr 19, 2021, 12:00 am IST
Politicians are voted in and voted out for a variety of reasons, but rarely have they been voted out for incompetence
For all his continued popularity, at least as shown in the opinion polls, the fact is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the head of an incompetent administrative response to the pandemic. (Photo: PTI)
 For all his continued popularity, at least as shown in the opinion polls, the fact is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the head of an incompetent administrative response to the pandemic. (Photo: PTI)

There are many versions of Murphy’s Law. The most popular one states that if something can go wrong, it will. Among the many versions the oldest one is attributed to a British merchant, engineer and owner of ships, Alfred Holt, who told his fellow engineers in 1877: “It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later.” That proposition became popular as Murphy’s Law when an American aerospace engineer, Edward Murphy, declared: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” From the sea to space, engineers devised systems that could be as failsafe as possible, forewarned by Murphy’s Law.

As an analyst of Indian political, economic, social and governance systems I have long held the view that in India Murphy’s Law works with a vengeance. Anything that can go wrong, invariably goes wrong. The unfortunate downside to that reality is that most Indians have come to accept a certain degree of incompetence in most systems. Given the generally high level of citizens’ tolerance for incompetence, it rarely becomes an election issue.


Politicians are voted in and voted out for a variety of reasons, ranging from their charisma, caste, community, money power and so on, but rarely have they been voted out for incompetence. The Indian voter has come to live with power outages, limited access to drinking water, uncollected garbage in the neighbourhood, inadequate law and order, difficulty in securing access to education and healthcare, and so on. Rarely have any of these become issues that determine the outcome of elections. I cannot recall the last time a politician went to the polls campaigning on a platform of competence, rather than loyalty or grievance based on caste, community or some other identity.


So, why should it surprise anyone that the voter has come to terms with the incompetent management of the Covid-19 pandemic and that this is not a defining issue in the ongoing elections to state legislatures? Caste and communal identity, allegations of corruption and nepotism seem to ignite political passions more during elections than the competence or incompetence of contending candidates in handling a pandemic.

India is no exception. Consider the fact that in the United States, Donald Trump secured more votes in the 2020 election compared to the 2016 election even though every medical professional in the United States will vouch for the fact that his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was “incompetent”. Mr Trump’s incompetence did not defeat him. The unity of non-white voters finally did.


For all his continued popularity, at least as shown in the opinion polls, the fact is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the head of an incompetent administrative response to the pandemic. One can argue about the relative responsibility of the Centre and the state governments and which of the states have responded more competently, one can differ on how one would define competence, but what is very clear is that the question of competence or incompetence in governmental response to the pandemic has not yet become a political issue.


In part this could be because, as the old adage goes, iss hamaam mein sab nangey hain. In short, all political parties in government across different states have been equally guilty of an incompetent response. Many public health experts believe Kerala is an exception, but it is interesting that the Left Front’s competence in dealing with the pandemic has not been an overt political issue in the recent elections.

As more and more evidence mounts up of administrative and political incompetence in dealing with the pandemic, it remains to be seen if Indian voters will just shrug their shoulders, throw up their hands, point to the gods above and quote Murphy’s Law. Or, will they hold their elected representatives and governments accountable? In the last two years more doctors and nurses have died fighting the pandemic than soldiers in fighting the nation’s enemies. While politicians become all patriotic when it comes to the death of soldiers and demand votes in the name of nationalism, why don’t the deaths caused by incompetence stir voters’ emotions?


There have been many examples of competent crisis management in the past and they stand in contrast to the present incompetence in dealing with the pandemic.  As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi took great pride, and rightly so, in his government’s handling of the Kutch earthquake in 2001. Why has the same Gujarat state been so incompetent in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic? Will Gujarat’s voters now punish their government for its incompetence?

The Indian administrative system was built on the assumption that a meritocratic and technocratic bureaucracy would compensate for the lack of experience in governance of an elected political leadership. This assumption worked as long as the civil service was willing to speak its mind and politicians in power were willing to listen to them. When civil servants and professionals in government are either scared to speak their mind or have little to contribute and politicians imagine they know everything on anything, one ends up with incompetent response to administrative challenges.


For all its lack of democracy, the Chinese Communist Party has created an internal merit-based bureaucracy that allows political leaders to rise to the top only after proving their administrative and governance credentials at every step of the power ladder. The Chinese people have sacrificed democracy at the altar of meritocracy and the Communist Party of China has for long functioned like the Indian Administrative Service, creating a “mandarinate”, so to speak. This has made China’s response to Covid-19 crisis more professionally competent.


In India, the gap between political power and administrative competence has widened with an increasing number of elected politicians taking charge of day-to-day functioning of the government and an increasing number of civil servants either abdicating their responsibilities or doing the bidding of politicians in office without consideration for the merits of a policy or a decision. All this gets revealed in times of a crisis. Covid-19 mismanagement reveals either administrative incompetence or the fear of professionals to speak their mind to politicians in power. Either way, the citizen pays the price.