Chief Minister’s Dilemma

What can a state government meaningfully do and take credit for in a federal structure like India? And if that state does relatively well, can its elected head — the Chief Minister —  claim that success as one’s own? Or make that claim the the basis for seeking the office of the Prime Minister?

Chief Ministers and their governments do certain things exclusively. These also happen to be areas where the measurement of the impact is relatively easy. Especially in a country with such poor development indicators, basic services that a state government ought to provide — such as health and education — form good measures to track. No matter how many schemes the government in Delhi rolls out by virtue of holding the larger purse, the state government has complete monopoly over implementation in these areas.

On the other side of the coin, India’s federal system is too biased in favor of the central government for policy related success to be touted by any state government. For example, while high growth in a given state compared to others needs relatively good governance in that state as a necessary condition, it isn’t sufficient by any means. And in providing that necessary condition of governance — apart from basic adherence to rule of law — the single most important contribution of a state to industry is probably a healthy and educated workforce.So, perhaps the only long term reasonable thing that a state government can therefore legitimately claim as a “model” is creating an educated and well cared for citizenry. The absence or presence of red tape, corruption and other factors seem cyclical; or move from rent seeking of one kind to another depending on which stage of economy the state is in.

As we’ve observed in the earlier analyses states that do these things relatively well happen to be Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. States that do these things atrociously poorly happen to be Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Then there are states that do these things in a mediocre way. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, West Bengal and Haryana fall into this category. Finally there are those that had a poor start but seem to be improving marginally. Rajasthan is an example of this category. Another related observation that may appear self evident: per-capita income seems correlated with literacy levels. This correlation strengthens further when literacy among younger people is considered instead of the overall population. Unless a state has natural resources of some sort it’s impossible to have long term growth without an enlightened population.

A state’s Chief Minister can legitimately claim that this set-up is unfair and that over the past 60 years, the central government has tried to take for itself many state functions. By virtue of being a Chief Minister (s)he cannot not be aghast with flagship programs of successive union governments like NRHM, JNNURM, RSBY and many others have usurped state functions under the guise of providing funds. The entire ministry of Human Resources Development in Delhi can be construed as an affront to states. If a certain CM believes in the state’s model, the only right thing to do would be to seek greater powers of taxation and policy ownership. For no state has yet done that well enough to think about extending the model or declaring a given model as a winner.

The above disparate things provide an honest Chief Minister with two options: work on the aspects that have a causal link with growth as hard as possible and hope the larger issues sort themselves out with time. Or, in the process of working hard towards creating well educated and healthy workforce, confront New Delhi at every step of the way to reclaim ground lost to the union behemoth. The third option of the CM running for the PM’s office can only betray hypocrisy and is not an honest person’s option. Unless, the campaign is against the New Delhi’s very reason of existence; it cannot be on the grounds of “I’ll provide better governance.” In fact a central government that governs well is worse than a poorly functioning one in this case.

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