Governance has of late emerged as the most popular of slogans, widely used by many of our political leaders. Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party swears by it, and so does Rahul Gandhi of the Congress.
But little thought appears to have gone into the manner in which these political leaders have formulated their ideas about what they actually mean by "governance".
Is governance only about better and more responsive administration? Is it about creating a rule-based system for implementing public policies? Or is it about a government that is both lean and efficient? None of that becomes clear when you listen to the speeches of our political leaders.
In other words, there is lack of clarity about the instruments that you need to achieve better governance, though each one of these leaders swears by the idea of governance.
A former prime minister was once asked what his number one priority would be if he were returned to power after the elections that were due to be held in a month or two. His reply was brief and categorical: he would reduce the size of the government. It is of course a different matter that after he was returned to power, he did just the opposite.
The size of the Union council of ministers increased so significantly that a law later had to be introduced to place a cap on the number of ministers a government could appoint.
That former prime minister was no exception. Soon after taking the oath as prime minister, Manmohan Singh, too, took a vow that one of his key objectives would be to reform the civil services. To be fair, Dr Singh was more practical and even proactive.
Perhaps, realising the compulsions of coalition politics, he made no promises about reducing the size of his ministerial council. Instead, he decided to attend to the need to make the civil services more effective and efficient.
A committee, too, was set up and it came out with several useful recommendations to make the civil services more lean, vibrant and responsive. But almost a decade later, most of those recommendations continue to gather dust, neatly filed and locked in the government's cupboards.
Behind all these initiatives, mind you, the central goal has always been to improve governance. But the political executive in this country seems to be clueless about how to go about achieving this primary task, one both politically and economically desirable. Perhaps, clueless is not the right word. A more appropriate description would be that the political executive is conscious of the onerous challenge of governance through reform of the government.
Thus, as long as governance can be achieved through reforming rules or policies, the ruling political class has implemented those changes. The story of economic reforms in the last two decades is all about such changes in policies - a move away from an opaque and discretionary regime towards a transparent and rule-based system. While these measures have helped in providing somewhat better administration and ensuring growth for the economy, fundamental improvements in governance have remained elusive.
The basic structure of the government with an oversized council of ministers and a bloated bureaucracy has remained by and large the same in the last two decades.
Governments in this period have, of course, made some feeble attempts to prune the strength of the bureaucracy and even put a cap on the size of the council of ministers. The National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to reduce the size of the bureaucracy and even abolish some departments and divisions.
But such attempts met with stiff resistance and had to be given up midway. In 2003, it made some headway in restricting the size of the Union ministry by capping it at 15 per cent of the total strength of the Lok Sabha. That meant reducing the size of the Union council of ministers, numbering 86 at that time, to a maximum of 82. The current council of ministers in the Manmohan Singh government, mind you, is 77, including the prime minister, less than the cap of 82.
But then, this reduction is attributable not as much to the government's resolve to run a lean council of ministers as to the gradual desertion of some coalition partners from the alliance, resulting in several vacancies.
What about the strength of the bureaucracy? It is true that in the last two decades, the total staff strength has come down from around four million to about 3.45 million and the salary budget has hovered at around one per cent of the country's gross domestic product. That again has been achieved through natural attrition and by not filling many vacancies that have arisen in the past few years.
But the real problem with the bureaucracy, so critical for governance, is not its unwieldy size, but the quality of its composition. As experts have pointed out, the mix is skewed heavily in favour of junior and middle-level staff in various departments, whose effectiveness in ensuring better governance is extremely doubtful. The task of reducing the size of the bureaucracy, therefore, is even more challenging and politically difficult.
No wonder successive governments have evaded this basic responsibility of streamlining the recruitment policies to reduce the large number of support staff - many of whom are redundant, thanks to the increasing use of technology and changed focus of government delivery systems.
The strongest resistance to reforming the bureaucracy will come from such tough measures. And yet that is also how the best results in terms of improved governance can be achieved. It is time India's political class recognised the critical importance of the size and quality of the government as an instrument for ensuring governance.