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RESTRUCTURING INDIA

- Accidents of history, and how they might be corrected

I went and cast a vote in the general elections on April 9. For the first time, I did not vote for Congress. It has none too good a reputation; but for me, it was the Indian National Congress, and that was enough. My father went to jail many times to make the British quit India; my brother also did so in 1942. The Hindu Mahasabha and its political avatars were traitors at that time; they hated Muslims, but were quite comfortable with the British.

I would have changed my loyalties earlier; in my view, Indira was anything but India, and I would have voted against her. But I was out of India then. To my surprise, Atal Bihari Vajpayee took me into his Economic Advisory Council; presumably he had approved of my performance in the finance ministry. If he had stayed on, I might have voted for him. Advani did not have any qualifications that might have made him a good prime minister, and hence did not offer me any reason to change sides.

Having known and worked for Manmohan Singh, I preferred him even though I recognized the inveterate populist in him. I see no difference between the populism of Congress and Aam Aadmi Party. But the latter has younger leaders and a less authoritarian structure; so it may reflect, respond to realities and try out new ideas. And it put up Rajmohan Gandhi, whom I conflated with his brother, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. I once visited Gopal Gandhi in the Calcutta Raj Bhavan. He had swept out the cobwebs and restored the stately building. And he had none of the airs of the many politicians I had met. Since he was not available, I voted for his brother.

The process could not have been better organized. A week before the voting, I received a slip of paper bearing my details and picture. On the morning of the poll, I went to the kindergarten which was the polling station. I walked in with minimum fuss; I was not even searched. There was a queue of half a dozen people. Soon I was inside, identified by my slip. My finger was disfigured with a generous drop of ink, I pressed the button, and was out in five minutes.

This is the general experience; I think the Election Commission has got its act together, and runs elections pretty well. It is better than the rest of the government. We should ask ourselves whether we could not give it more things to do. For instance, it is better equipped to run Aadhar than Nandan Nilekani would be; and it would not face sabotage from the population registrar and the home ministry. We should ask the Election Commission to maintain a running inventory of residents — residents, not citizens. Who is a national and who is not calls for an administrative judgment, which may be quite laborious; before anyone can take it, it is necessary to have a list of all potential nationals — that is residents.

Once it has a residents’ register, there is every reason to allow it to collect all personal taxes and distribute all personal subsidies. It may be helped in this by a body that collects data of income and assets; but such a body must be an adjunct of the Election Commission, and not the couple of dozen finance ministries scattered across the country. If a single body collects all personal taxes, it would be able to compare, coordinate and simplify them. The personal data it collects would encompass information about ownership of property and financial assets; so all the property offices, stock exchanges, mutual funds and companies can also be brought under its purview. Just now, the ministry of company affairs does a poor job of overseeing companies, and its daughter, Securities and Exchange Board of India, of overseeing stock exchanges. Once in a while, it also tries to teach a lesson to those who refuse to recognize its sovereignty, such as Subrata Roy; if someone like him does not behave, it takes him to court and gets him jailed. This entire process was a violation of personal liberty; in my view, while the judicial system deserves the highest respect, not even the highest court has the right to imprison anyone without a proper trial. This happened because the government has given up on its duty of protecting personal liberty. I think that an unelected, professional Election Commission, which knows the laws and enforces them, would do a better job of it. The hordes of Central and state-level legislators can continue to make, break and amend laws as they do now.

If the Election Commission takes over tax collection, government bodies would be left only with the job of spending the revenue. Just now, they are both revenue collecting and spending bodies to varying extent. The Centre collects more revenue than it spends and passes on a good deal to states; similarly, the states pass on revenue to local bodies. If tax collection is unified in a single body, it can apply rational criteria to who should collect what and who should receive what; the decision on that question would depend on which body would manage which function best. There is no reason to restrict ourselves to three levels of government. It is perfectly possible, for example, that education and medical care could be handled better by specialist bodies at the national level. These ended up by accident with the states because the British had given them to their provinces. The British began governing India at the level of provinces because that is how they built up their empire. The Bombay, Madras and Bengal provinces were conquered before an overarching colonial government was created; so many functions emerged with the provinces and stayed with them till the 21st century.

This is an accident of history. If it is corrected now, it is likely that some functions such as foreign affairs, defence and transport will end up with the Centre; the rest will end up with the lowest level of administration. There will be nothing for the intermediate level, which we call states, to do; they may as well be abolished. The present states were created because Tamils and Telugus could not bear the jabber of one another’s tongues; as long as we have unilingual states, this problem will not arise.

And how many such states should we have? We should identify all cities with a population of half a million, and define states by drawing boundaries, which are equidistant between the centres of those cities. Natural features such as rivers and hills should also be taken account of. Radcliffe, I am afraid, is long dead; we should find another Radcliffe to head a boundary commission. And not just another Radcliffe. There are 182 governments in the world, and many do some things better than we do. We should identify them, and call in experts from them to set up or improve our corresponding government departments. It is not just administrative experts we should import; if legislators decide, for example, to invite James Cameron to be prime minister for a while, let them.