July 27, 2020
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A Man Of His World

Our prime minister is a one-man show. How has his governance fared in 2015?

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A Man Of His World
  • None in this country has quite the same self-awareness and sense of mission, epitomised in the way he speaks of himself in the third person.
  • He thinks he has a providential mission to fulfil.
  • His identification with his country is so intense that he sees himself and the country as one.
  • A stable regime is to be established by an extraordinary mixture of vision, stubbornness, chutzpah, political acumen and bluff.
  • The country’s pride in itself, its intr­ansigence, its historical and cultural heritage...alongside its charm, diplomatic skill and humanism: these traits and contradictions are all to be found in the man whose personalisation of patriotism can border on the irrational.
  • He is profoundly attached to traditional values...but he is also a prophet of modernisation.
  • He expounds grand principles and likes to appear as a leader set on a single, unwavering course.... A ruthless, calculating politician, he is a complete realist in all things, remorselessly applying cold logic. A strict disciplinarian, he demands complete loyalty from those around him but he gives little in return. He is of the firm opinion that a statesman should not have friends because he would fav­our them and would overlook their weaknesses.
  • He is a master of improvisation, of courting danger and springing surprises, making a fetish of secrecy. He takes a visceral delight in defeating opponents. He is comfortable with power, deploying it with a natural assurance.
  • It has been said of him that his performance is breathtaking. At times eloquent, at other times coldly pragmatic, but at all times articulate. He is not alw­ays right, but he is always certain.
  • Personally frugal and scrupulous, he is not at home in the social world of the capital. He has a taste not for the country’s classical culture but for non-literary popular culture.
  • His achievements often come at a cost, creating lasting enmities, suspicions and interrogations. Is he a great statesman or a conjurer on a huge scale? Does he have lessons for the world or is he a Wizard of Oz manipulating a giant machine of illusions?

These lengthy observations are about Gen Charles de Gaulle, from Johnathan Fenby’s fine biography of the great French statesman, liberator of his country from German occupation during the World War II and founder of France’s Fifth Republic. I have merely changed the past tense, found in the original text, to the present tense. And I have done that not in the least to put Narendra Modi on the same pedestal as de Gaulle—such a comparison would indeed be ludicrous—but to highlight the promises and perils of leaders who equate a change of government with a change of regime. A change, in their reckoning, that they alone can incarnate.

Indeed, the outcome of the May 2014 general elections did not lead only to a BJP-led government replacing a Cong­ress-led one. It also led to an altering of the tone and temper that has gone into governing India. One that has prevailed—except during one dark interlude—since independence. Unlike in France, this has not involved a formal redistribution of power between the organs of the state. But the Modi government’s tenure so far has been marked by a systematic attempt to revamp the ideological underpinnings of the Indian republic. We have been witness to overt and surreptitious end­eavours to undo the delicate balance bet­ween the executive and the legislature, judiciary, media and civil society.

Yes, such an attempt was also made in June 1975, when Indira Gandhi imposed an Emergency. She kept the ‘hardware’ of Indian democracy—Parliament, the judiciary, statutory bodies like the Election Commission—intact. But she all but emasculated its ‘software’—freedom of expression, separation of powers, accountability to Parliament etc—by insisting that to progress, the country needed ‘committed’ politicians, bureaucrats, judges and journalists. They alone could resist ‘reactionaries’ at home and the machinations of foreign forces.

Nothing would be sillier than to even hint that that mercifully short-lived spell of authoritarian rule is akin to what the country has experienced for a little over a year and a half. But it would also be naive not to note the adv­ent of governance that is more muscular, more personality-centric and more determined to push an agenda that is at variance with a certain idea of India. In that respect, Modi is closer to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Shinzo Abe of Japan. All three democratically elected leaders have recast nationalism in a majoritarian avatar.

Among the mantras that Modi chanted throughout his election campaign, there is one that took precedence over all others. He called for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. What he obviously had in mind was to end once and for all the dominant role of the Nehru-Gandhi family over politics that had lasted for a greater part of post-Independence India’s history. That domination, in Modi’s eyes, acc­ounted for all of India’s major ills: niggardly economic growth, pervasive corruption, social unrest, atrophy of inst­itutions, failure to modernise the armed forces, lack of firm leadership and a robust sense of direction, lack of strong ties with the outside world and so on.

All this did not matter as much to Modi and his Sangh parivar as the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ‘votebank’ policies. That, of course, was synonymous with the ‘appeasement’ of minorities that enabled, in their view, not just the Congress but all parties who swore by secularism to thrive in electoral politics—at the expense of the majority community. (It’s another matter that the situation of the minorities under all governments has been disgraceful.)

In his election campaign, Modi’s direct references to that particular agenda were few. Sensing the mood of the electorate, he harped instead on the development mantra, on the success of the Gujarat model, on job creation, on inflation and on the scams and scandals of the UPA rule. Add to this the way he cultivated his persona: the frequent allusions to his modest family background, the provincial’s offensive against the conceits of the metropolitan elites, the grit of an alleged parvenu pitted against the smugness of his party’s long-lasting patricians, the austere demeanour of the RSS pracharak that was in sharp contrast to the glitz of the well-heeled in the capital.

Modi’s in the mould of Erdogan and Putin. They practise a personality-driven politics.

So how has Modi proceeded to realise his goals and ambitions since May last year? To begin with, he moved quickly to establish his supremacy in the BJP. Veterans to whom he would have had to show due deference were sidelined. L.K. Advani, in particular, was humiliated time and again. The former deputy prime minister was made a mentor, a Bhishmapitamah, but  deprived of all authority. After the party’s rout in  the Bihar elections, veterans tried yet again to challenge the leadership but were made to bite the dust. Modi also ensured that his closest confidant Amit Shah was made party president despite the latter’s unsavoury reputation for using strong-arm methods to ‘neutralise’ so-called enemies back in his home state. What mattered to Modi was Shah’s robust understanding of how elections are fought and won. The electoral reverses in Delhi, Bihar and elsewhere apparently did not dent this confidence.

Modi could trust Shah to silence the feeblest voice of dissent in the party, to reach out to allies and, not least, to calm the fears of the RSS bosses in Nagpur. The Modi-Shah duo has pretty much allowed BJP CMs and CMs of allied parties a free hand in their states so long as they did not contest the PM’s authority in national affairs. He stood by Shivraj Singh Chouhan during the Vyapam scam and by Vasundhara Raje for her alleged involvement with former IPL boss Lalit Modi’s murky financial aff­airs. (On this latter count, his foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, also received his benign protection.) Moreover, despite several irritants, the Akalis in Pubjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra have not parted ways with the NDA.

No less significant, Modi, aided by Shah, seems to have established a fairly sound working relationship with the RSS. Its supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, may well have contributed in some measure to the BJP’s dismal performance in Bihar with his controversial statements on the policy of reservations. But that hasn’t—at least on a surface view—dented the relationship. The reasons are all too obvious. Modi has given the RSS a say in cultural and ideological matters, but on economic and pol­itical issues, he has had the last word.

The functioning of the executive under Modi also indicates the extent to which he is prepared to go to impose his authority. Not since the heyday of Indira Gandhi has the PMO exercised such overweening power. He runs it with a small group of bur­eaucrats, many of whom had worked with him in Gujarat. He has indeed reached out directly to the bureaucracy to drive home the point that his writ alone will run.

The PMO has cleared every major and minor appointment in the government. Officials who had served the earlier regime have been given the short shrift. Bureaucrats have been kept on their toes—what with long working hours, timely attendance in off­ice, instant demands for PowerPoint presentations, a strict watch on their travel schedules and so forth. His stamp is obvious on every government decision. It is he who makes the decisions public, regardless of the ministries involved. However, post-Bihar, he has allowed key ministers to share the limelight both at home and abroad. But this has not dented his stature as the regime’s numero UNO.

On balance, it can be said that the bur­eaucracy under Modi has a more coherent focus on policies than in the past. But whether this has resulted in “more governance and less government” is not quite clear. With a tough, no-nonsense boss at the helm, a babu would think several times before he makes a noting on a file that might not be in sync with the prime minister’s thinking. Moreover, what exa­ctly transpires during cabinet meetings is also a matter of speculation. Candour on the part of most of his ministerial colleagues is likely to be an exception rather than the rule. They know that Modi would not be Modi if he doesn’t get his way.

When he entered Parliament for the first time, Modi touched his forehead on the step of the entrance to the building, hailed it as the temple of democracy and proclaimed that the only book he would follow in letter and spirit would be India’s  Constitution. These gestures and words seemed a bit out of place given his record in Gujarat. He convened the state assembly once every six months to meet constitutional requirements. He often got the Opposition suspended from the House to facilitate the passage of certain bills. In 2009, he once got 12 laws passed in 17 minutes. Indeed, the assembly met for 23 days throughout his tenure as chief minister.

No Intra-Party debate Seniors like M.M. Joshi and Advani sidelined. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

He has spoken little in Parliament though; to be fair, he made up for this lacuna to some extent with two extremely well-crafted speeches delivered in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on Dr Ambedkar’s signal contribution to the framing of the Constitution. He has hardly taken any questions from the Opposition benches. Indeed, he has spent more time addressing parliaments abroad than at home. His government has more or less ignored Parliament’s standing committees. It has introduced new bills through supplementary business circulated at the eleventh hour. To bypass the Rajya Sabha, where the government lacks a majority, the government has sought to amend certain laws by making them part of finance bills. (More ominous still is the attempt of the Union finance minister to pit the Lok Sabha, dir­ectly elected by the people, against the Rajya Sabha, whose members are indirectly elected.) And Modi has often resorted to ordinances to bypass the Upper House.

The government’s efforts to engage opp­osition parties to elicit their support for one or the other bill have been weak and niggardly. Modi did invite Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh over for a cup of tea to seek their support for the GST bill. But their relations have continued to be tense, especially after the Gandhis got embroiled in the National Herald case. Meanwile, the Centre’s persistent feud with the AAP government in Delhi, and with other non-BJP states, threatens to land both in a constitutional quagmire. This is all the more odd given Modi’s declared intent to move towards a genuinely federalised polity. The move has worked only once to date. That is when Modi persuaded Mamata Banerjee to accompany him on his visit to Bangladesh.

But this gesture must be seen in the wider context of Modi’s actions towards greater federalism. He disbanded the Planning Commission and put in its place the Niti Aayog. It is supposed to monitor relations between the Centre and the states. Its mandate however is still hazy. It ignores, for instance, the Interstate Council created under Article 263 of the Constitution. The Council of chief ministers that has been set up is hardly different from the National Development Council.

In his party, Modi has established his supremacy; in this, Amit Shah has been his general.

The government has accepted, and imp­lemented, the latest finance commission’s recommendation regarding greater devolution of resources to the states. But this, as several experts have pointed out, has been done without taking into acc­ount the capacity of states to raise and spend the resources. The ratio of central funding and state funding for educational and public health schemes has been changed. The Centre’s contribution has been heavily slashed. This has especially hurt northeastern states, where the Centre-state ratio was 90:10. Overall, the devolution of resources has proved to be a curse in disguise. The demand for the scheme for the empowerment of adolescent girls, for example, was Rs 1,476 crore. It was given Rs 75.5 crore. The Plan outlay for healthcare is 1.2 per cent of the GDP, when it should have been between 2-2.5 per cent, as recommended by the draft National Health Policy.

The government’s relations with the highest judiciary have been equally problematic, particularly on judicial appointments. The collegium system followed so far is under stress, even after the Supreme Court held a legislation passed in Parliament to be null and void.

No Dialogue The Opposition disrupts the functioning of Lok Sabha

If  Modi’s conduct vis-a-vis the three branches of governance—the executive, the legislature and the judiciary—has been patchy, his conduct vis-a-vis  the media has been characterised by supreme indifference bordering on disdain. Its genesis goes back to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Modi developed an allergy for journalists, especially those working in  English-language TV news channels, newspapers and news magazines. He rest­ricted their access to the Secretariat. Media persons had to be content with press releases issued by his PRO, Jagdish Thakkar. He gave no press conferences and seldom granted interviews.

He continued in this path during his election campaign and later when he assumed office as prime minister. He ignored the traditional private media and preferred instead to communicate with public opinion through the social media and the government-owned media. The few interviews he gave—largely to foreign journalists or to those in India who were in awe of him—were on the basis of questions sent in advance. There was no scope to ask him supplementary questions. Modi also did away with the tradition of taking journalists with him on his foreign tours. (This is a move I endorse. Media houses do not need freebies. These cast a shadow on their credibility.) His objective was clear: ensure to every extent possible that the government speaks in one voice and that communication with the public is only in one direction.

Modi has had huge success with this strategy. The much-despised traditional media gave him carpet coverage during the election campaign. And he has continued to receive it since he became prime minister. This has perhaps something to do with large corporate groups known to favour him entering the media space in a big way. That possibility can neither be exaggerated nor dismissed out of hand. The fact remains that he is by far the most popular leader in the country even if his popularity had dipped a little in the past few months. A grotesque evidence of this popularity is the rush of journalists, including several high-profile home, to click selfies with the prime minister at one or the other social event.

To what degree has all this shaped Modi’s tenure so far? The pros and cons of his economic policies have been discussed threadbare. Suffice it to say that corporate India, which backed him to the hilt, is disappointed with him. Even the recent moves to increase FDI in several key areas hasn’t persuaded them that he has done enough to hasten the pace reforms that would lend substance to his ‘Make in India’ slogan. Likewise, he has encountered stiff opposition, including from those within his own Sangh parivar, to bills related to land acquisition, reform of lab­our laws and environmental clearances.

During his speeches at home and abroad, Modi has spelt out grandiose plans for infrastructure—ranging from building 100 smart cities to greater road and waterways connectivity, from ending the curse of open defecation to establishing a digitalised India. These plans doubtless carry the promise of rejuvenating the economy, provided he can create a conducive climate that encourages growth. In that respect, liberalising the tax regime, increasing the cap on foreign investment, including in the area of defence, auctioning coal blocks and the telecom spectrum are steps in the right direction. But more, much more remains to be done.

On issues of concern to civil society, the Modi government’s record hasn’t been outstanding. There have been inexplicable delays in appointing the heads of the CIC and the CVC, not to speak of the Lokpal. A systematic effort to browbeat NGOs such as Greenpeace, and the hounding of Teesta Setalvad, leaves a taste of ash in the mouth. The jury is still out on the substantive outcome of his visits to close to 30 countries since he assumed office. His decision to invite leaders of neighbouring countries for his oath-taking ceremony was a master-stroke. But the high hopes it raised have been dashed.

Relations with Nepal—that contained so much promise after his brilliant add­ress to its Parliament—have hit rock bottom. Ties with Maldives are strained to breaking point. An Indian role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces is yet not in sight. On the other hand, New Delhi’s outreach to Sri Lanka, and especially to Bangladesh, has yielded a rich harvest. Finally, after inexplicable flip-flops, a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan has been resumed.

This is decidedly a mixed bag. But there can be no denying that Modi has managed to pursue a multi-aligned approach to for­eign policy with vigour and with his priorities clearly laid out: inviting investment to create jobs in India and enhancing India’s strategic clout in international affairs. Even his harshest critics must concede he has been able to woo countries pitted against each other—America and Russia, Israel and Iran, China and Japan, the Gulf countries and their rivals—with unsuspected aplomb.

His impromptu decisions to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft from France and to give e-visas to Chinese citizens demonstrate that he can go against the grain of bureaucratic caution whenever he thinks fit. And he has been able to wow NRI audiences—them of the tiring, tiresome long-distance nationalism. His assumption that they are in a position to influence policies of the host governments is quite wobbly.

What indeed stands out is that Modi is able and eager to shed the ideological baggage of the past when he conducts his foreign policy. The critical question is: how far is he prepared to go to shed his ideological baggage when he engages with the people of India? He has made no bones about his long association with the RSS. He has described himself as a ‘Hindu nationalist’. He has presented copies of the Bhagvad Gita to heads of state and government during his visits abroad—with the snide remark that secularists will conduct endless debates on TV on this gesture. (It is another matter that they did not do so.) He has also echoed the wonky claims of the Sangh parivar of ancient India’s scientific achievements.

Death Of Dissent Activists in Delhi protesting Kalburgi’s murder. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

Moreover, he hasn’t uttered a word about the sustained efforts of his ministerial colleagues to saffronise textbooks and appoint little-known and little-recognised individuals with Hindutva leanings to head various institutions. Nor has his voice been heard loudly and unequivocally on contentious issues like the beef ban in Maharashtra and Haryana, the ban on eggs for school children in Madhya Pradesh, the heavy-han­ded approach to anyone critical of the Hindutva brigade, and not the least, the Dadri lynching.

Though the likes of Mohan Bhagwat and Subramanian Swamy have spoken of India as a ‘Hindu nation’, he has, it is true, time and again asserted his determination to uphold and respect the core values of the Constitution. Thus he has kept his distance from the pet themes of the Hindu right-wing—uniform civil code, Article 370, the Ram temple in Ayodhya—and inv­ested a great deal in ensuring the success of the PDP-BJP coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir.

But against all this, he has singularly failed to act against those in his government and party who have made the most outrageously provocative statements against minorities. And his government’s stand on those who have denounced in myriad ways the rising tide of bigotry and hate across the country has been—to put it mildly—self-defeating. You can’t hope to modernise the defence forces and the economy if you can’t roll back the tide of social and cultural regression.

What will determine Modi’s trajectory from now on will depend partly on how swiftly and effectively his policies get imp­lemented and partly on how the opposition parties undercut him. The BJP’s rout in Delhi and Bihar is a nasty reminder that the party can’t afford smug satisfaction. The lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha is bound to stymie his ambitions.

To perform well during the rest of his tenure, he will have to acknowledge certain basic characteristics about India. Indians want economic growth. But they also want safety nets for the most vulnerable sections of society. Indians  want to nurture their multi-layered identity. They despise any kind of extremism since it emasculates India’s rich and vibrant diversity and inevitably leads to the closing of minds.

These are the facts that Modi has to reckon with. Will he? It is too early to say.

He might consider the fate that awaited de Gaulle. The greatest French statesman of the 20th century had to ride into the sunset when he failed to grasp the mood of his countrymen after the great student upsurge of May 1968. But, closer to the bone, he who has drunk at the fount of Hindutva might also pause to acknowledge what has kept India going throughout the millennia: an uncanny ability of Indians to create an idol, worship it, taunt it and ridicule it and, by and by, destroy it with equal fervour. In the plainest of words, he must realise that India can be singular only so long as India is plural. Evidence of such a realisation has to date been fuzzy.


Acronyms Coined

  • PaHal: Pratyaksha Hastaantarit Laabh
  • NITI: National Institution for Transforming India (replacing Planning Comm)
  • PRAGATI: Pro-active Governance and Timely Implementation
  • HRIDAY: Heritage Development and Augmentation Yojana
  • JAM: Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile
  • NSM: Natl. Supercomputing Mission
  • AMRUT—Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation


Schemes Launched

  • Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao
  • Smart City mission
  • One Rank, One Pension
  • Skill India
  • Atal Pension Yojana
  • D.D. Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana
  • Digital India
  • Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana
  • PM Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana
  • Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana


Controversy Time

  • Feb: Calls Kejriwal’s ‘gotra’ faulty
  • May: Jashodaben, Modi’s wife, files RTI on entitlements and security
  • Aug: In 18 months, Modi spent 2.5 months out of India on 28 foreign trips. Ten more visits since.
  • Nov: Ex-BBC journalist Lance Price says he was paid to write Modi bio
  • Nov: Forced to say UK didn’t deny him visa after 2002 Gujarat riots
  • Dec: CBI raid on Delhi CMO
  • All year long: Rationalists’ murders, Dadri lynching, ‘award vapsi’

(The author is a former editor of the Times of India and currently the paper’s consulting editor. He is also a member of the editorial advisory board of The WorldPost/Huffington Post and the R.K. Laxman Chair Professor at the Symbiosis International University in Pune.)

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