February 28, 2020
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Dr Naidu's Prescription

Tips on good governance and infotech, but less than the full story from the Andhra CM

Dr Naidu's Prescription
Plain Speaking Chandrababu Naidu
By Sevanti Ninan
Viking Rs 395;Pages: 288
The last piece of hard news we had from the state of Andhra Pradesh was of starving cotton farmers offering to sell their kidneys in order to survive. It was better, they told newsmen, to lose a kidney than let their impoverished families perish. Now it is no ordinary mismatch in a household budget that prompts gentle folk to think of chopping off a limb or two for the sake of a little cash. Such solutions are usually sought in situations of extreme deprivation, built up over time. Clearly, the growing agony of the farmers had gone unnoticed. Nor had anyone noticed the human organ hunters from across the country who had turned up at the huts of those anonymous families in Andhra Pradesh to seal a quick deal.

There was another headline from Andhra Pradesh not too long ago. As Delhi was getting ready to get tough with subsidies, the Telegu Desam used its huge clout as an ally of the Vajpayee government to put a spoke in the process. Local politics was more important and subsidy cuts could wait, was the discreet message which went out. Not a thought for transparency here, not a word on record, just a little political nudge and wink.

Now here is an altogether different offering from Andhra: a book by chief minister Chandrababu Naidu himself. Naidu likes to be known as a big-ticket reformer. This account, written in in first person with considerable editorial help from journalist Sevanti Ninan, seeks to sum up what he stands for and his vision for the gigantic and diverse state over which he presides. If you want to know where he's at and where he may be headed, he reveals all here - at least, as much as he can vouch for on record.

Naidu's long political career began with the Congress. But it is only in the past few years, in the role of chief minister, that he has sought to bring about significant changes in the way Andhra Pradesh is run. At the core of the new style of functioning he has placed the computer and through it a web of interconnectivity that he believes can throw open the doors of goverment and let ordinary people see and change what goes on in the corridors of power.

Like other Indian politicians, Naidu may not be the same Naidu every day of the year. But unlike many Indian politicians, he is not unwilling to tread a new path. So, on a good day, the Naidu who believes in reforms will be in favour of cutting down on government. He will want the journey time of official files to be speeded up. The rights of citizens will be pursued with a passion. He will also stand for privatisation and the bringing in of foreign investment in liberal doses.

Naidu has sought to place Andhra Pradesh in easy-going orbit with the best in the world. This is a tall order considering that he has taken over in a system that was run on the explosive fuel of cinemascope demagoguery. None of his predecessors had time for the harsh and complex facts of the massive domain over which they presided - least of all N.T. Rama Rao, his father-in-law and the founder of the Telegu Desam, who flourished on his image as an actor and was twice swept to power on the tide of Telegu pride.

Naidu has tried to live with different goals. As the kidney sales and subsidy worries show, he certainly has a long way to go. But there can be no doubt that he believes a new kind of governance must take root. This book is about that process and because it comes straight from him, is full of detail as only he could have seen it. This is both its strength and its weakness. Here is an opportunity to get into the mind of one of India's successful politicians, but then again, too much first person narrative also weighs heavily on the reader. One can't help wanting to know what the other side to his story is.

Naidu covers the problem of state finances, the insatiable wage bill which devours all revenue, he talks about the obduracy of the bureaucracy and vested interests in an administration, he tells you how tough it is to innovate, he is unabashedly eloquent about the new profile he has given Andhra Pradesh, elevating it to one of the few states where investments flow.

It is almost with boyish wonder that he talks about information technology and what it can do for society. He is eager to display the performance of his state-wide network and how it has begun speeding up the work of the government. At Tirupati, computers have cut short the long queues of devotees at the temple. Elsewhere, land records have gone into CDs and stacks of withering files have vanished. Conferences now take place online and Naidu's own laptop has more updated data than any erring officer can hope to get around.

It was with great doggedness that Naidu obtained an appointment with Bill Gates, thereby raising changing international perceptions of the state by another notch. It is with similar zeal that he has gone on promos across the world. Image matters to him. This book is all about the image he sees of himself in his favourite mirror. To that extent it is important, but perhaps it is also time that someone other than Naidu also took a close look at Naidu.

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