Good intentions are not enough for good governance, as Prime Minister Modi will ultimately find out

History will judge Modi not by bullet trains, demonetisation or GST, but by the reformation or deformation of the country’s character.

Good intentions are never in short supply. It is not for nothing that people say, “The way to hell is paved with good intentions.” When it comes, especially, to public life, good intentions are laudable, but simply not enough. Even if no one else agrees with us on this count, we are sure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, given the way things are and where we are headed now.

Only consider this. Modi started with the fanfare of “minimum government and maximum governance”. Unlike many others, we do not distrust the sincerity of his intention in this regard. Intentions, in themselves, are anyway a tricky ground on which to judge anyone; for nothing can be proved, this way or that, in terms of intentions alone. A tree is known, after all, by its fruit. And when what was proffered as a good tree begins to yield bad fruit, it becomes imperative to ask what has gone wrong and why.

By now it is clear that Modi got carried away by a borrowed saying. He adopted as a slogan David Thoreau’s idea introduced a century ago. Surely, there is nothing wrong about borrowing a concept, but what is immature is doing so unmindful of its context, or in indifference to the radical shift it implies.

Government versus governance

Government, as implied in Thoreau’s vision, is what the state does to citizens. It presupposes the passivity of the latter. The animators of state machinery monopolise decision-making, public resources and initiatives. Citizens are mere recipients or, in the worst case scenario, victims. Governance, in contrast, shifts the spotlight from the state to citizens. Its essence is their empowerment to maximise their own well-being, based on their responsible and empowered participation. Where citizens are unable or unwilling to shoulder such responsibilities, and the oligarchs of state power are allergic to their relevance and potentials, government can in no way give way to governance. So, the predictable has happened.

Where we were promised “minimum government, maximum governance”, we have an unprecedented dominance of government and a perceptible decline in governance. Whatever has been done so far has been aimed at making the state more muscular and all-pervasive. While we take cognisance of this regrettable and alarming turn of events, which augurs ill for democracy, we do not agree with the cynics that Modi was taking the gullible people of India on a royal ride to where they would never have wished to be. It is closer to the truth to assume that he has been, himself, caught in a conundrum that he did not bother to face or understand. He did not know what he was biting, or if he would be able to digest what he was chewing.

“We, the People…” are far more decisive than any leader, even a leader like Modi who today is being ascribed quasi-divine attributes. History is the art of reducing boisterous heroes to silent footnotes. It will happen to Modi too. It is only a matter of time. So, if there is an iota of democratic wisdom still left in us, we would shift the focus from Modi to the people. Indeed, this is what Modi himself should have done. He did not. It is a fatal mistake. Time will tell.

All other errors of judgement Modi has committed stem from this fundamental mistake. If people are not our foremost resource, then all that matters is hard cash. So, good governance is only money and gross domestic product numbers. How material resources can improve the quality of a society, or embrace rudimentary notions of distributive justice, without genuine “human resource development” is a question that economists and magicians of national prosperity in the pantheon of Niti Aayog need to ask.

Valson Thampu (Left) and Swami Agnivesh.
Valson Thampu (Left) and Swami Agnivesh.

True Ram rajya

The character of a people is the single most important determinant for good governance. This assumes particular irony today as Ram mandir is being resurrected for political gains yet again. Lord Ram is a symbol of righteousness. That righteousness, which is the fountain spring of good governance, was not envisaged to stay confined to Lord Ram as an individual. The principle was, “As the king, so the subjects.” The proof that Lord Ram is indeed the embodiment of righteousness is that those who profess themselves to be his devotees and disciples abide scrupulously by righteousness. It is a mockery of sorts that the self-styled defenders of Lord Ram, the exemplar of absolute righteousness, deem themselves excused from this core principle of good governance.

There is a lesson in this especially for Modi. He needs to watch closely, not so much how many are excreting black money – which he needs to do, no doubt – but what general character the country is acquiring under his watch. For, the principle “as the king, so the subjects” applies as much to democracy as to monarchy, the prime minister taking the place of the king. History will judge Modi not by bullet trains, demonetisation or the Goods and Services Tax, but by the reformation or deformation of character the country as a whole experienced under his stewardship.

Unlike our dry-as-dust secularists, we do not see any incompatibility between good governance and Ram rajya. Rather, we believe in a convergence between the two. But Ram rajya should not be cheapened into a slogan of communal triumphalism. It should be embraced, on the contrary, as a mandate to rebuild the crumbling moral foundations of our society; where the resources of the soul – as derived from the eternal soul, the paramathma – are more crucial than material prosperity, hugely valuable as the latter is. Science without conscience, as Bapuji said, is evil. So is wealth without social justice, which installs greed as our national god.

We will take the first steps towards good governance only when we tame greed with righteousness and subjugate the almighty dollar to the power of character, to which Lord Ram is a glowing and genial invitation.

Swami Agnivesh is president emeritus, World Council of Arya Samaj.

Valson Thampu is former principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.