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A wrong signal to the masses?

By George Jacob

KOTTAYAM, DEC. 25. Although the United Democratic Front (UDF) Government seems to be keen to project the accomplishments of the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy's mass contact programme, a closer look at the exercise gives a different picture.

The focus of the UDF's media campaign has been on attending to thousands of people, mainly women and those from marginalised sections, who would have otherwise been subjected to bureaucratic neglect. By eliminating the red tape, it appears that the Chief Minister has succeeded not only in ensuring speedy results, but also in doing away with corruption at the lower levels. Settling 42,151 cases in such a short period is a good start for a new Government.

Coalition

For the first time, a Chief Minister has tried to assert his position in a coalition set-up. Ever since the advent of coalition politics in the State in the late 1950s, the powers bestowed on the Chief Minister have been steadily eroding, as coalition partners have been developing their own fiefdoms.

In the mass contact programme, Mr. Chandy found an effective tool to articulate his position once again, by interfering in the functioning of almost all the departments. The fact that he could win the cooperation of the bureaucracy, which normally hates a politician making such efforts, could be a source of satisfaction to Mr. Chandy.

Follow-up action

"It will be wrong to judge the programme on the basis of the results it has produced so far,'' says Jos Chathukulam, director of the Centre for Rural Management. The exercise has produced a lot of new information and data. Its success depends on whether the Government takes corrective measures based on the data. "Only the nature of follow-up action can gauge the success," he said.

It is a fact that the whole exercise boils down to an effort to reinforce patron-client relationship between the ruler and the ruled, reminding one of benevolent autocrats, he says.

It may be a paradox that such an exercise is being promoted by a Government that is also engaged in implementing principles of good governance, with financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under the Modernising Government Programme (MGP).

Against this background, it will be imperative to make an introspection, at least at the highest level, on the effects of such exercises on bureaucrats undergoing training programmes and workshops as part of MGP.

A more appropriate way to assess the mass contact programme will be to correlate the exercise with Panchayati Raj institutions that are expected to be the cornerstones of "fast, transparent and pro-people'' administration.

Panchayati Raj institutions have been vested with executive powers; it is their role that is getting appropriated through exercises like the mass contact programmes, it is pointed out.

Panchayati Raj

A close analysis of the 42,151 cases disposed of during the programme throws light on how many of them could have been dealt with by the Panchayati Raj system directly or through village and taluk offices indirectly. As in the case of MGP, campaign on the mass contact programme too may send a wrong signal that it is yet another model for decentralisation.

In other words, the real test will be to find an answer to the question whether Mr. Chandy and the bureaucracy will allow the grama, block and district Panchayati Raj institutions (which have executive powers, constitutionally) to hold mass contact programmes so that administration at the lower levels become "fast, transparent and pro-people.''

The question is whether the Chief Minister is destroying an opportunity to build strong democratic institutions through exercises like the mass contact programme and furthering the damage through promotional campaigns.

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