Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first collective interaction with Secretaries to the government on Tuesday without their ministers being present was a whiff of fresh air for the senior bureaucracy. His informal manner—calling them by their names which he picked up in a jiffy—and exhortation to shed fear in taking decisions went down well with the bureaucrats.
Modi has been an unorthodox politician in many ways. He has an uncanny memory, is a hands-on leader, and is a self-confessed hard taskmaster. He is a workaholic with a huge appetite for hard work, which he proved beyond doubt as he criss-crossed the country during his extraordinarily whirlwind campaign during the recent Lok Sabha elections. At the meeting of secretaries, he told them that there was much hard work ahead and that they may be required to work even on holidays.
Fresh from the experience with the soft-spoken but timid Dr Manmohan Singh, the bureaucrats were sore and demoralised about how Dr Singh had let down former Coal Secretary P C Parakh when he got into trouble while he was being investigated in the coal blocks allocation scam. By Parakh’s account, he had kept the then Prime Minister informed at every stage, but the latter did not defend him and blatantly evaded responsibility.
That the Parakh experience has affected decision-making in government in general is a cold reality. Officers of the government who are prone to be over-cautious are even more wary of taking decisions today. By instilling in them a sense of confidence that he as their new Prime Minister would stand by them as long as their decisions are taken with honest intentions and in good faith is a big morale booster for them.
But prone as they are to pushing files and passing the buck, it would be interesting to see how they function under the present dispensation. With the personal staff of ministers now forced to be free of family influences, the PM favouring action and decision-making and Secretaries to the government having frequent direct access to the Prime Minister, the recalcitrant among the ministers would predictably have their wings clipped.
This is the proverbial ‘honeymoon’ period of the Modi government, so everything would seem right, but as things go along, the shirkers in the bureaucracy and the cry babies among them will begin to find alibis for non-performance. It would be then revealing as to how merit-driven the Prime Minister and his senior team would be in doling out rewards and meting out punishments.
This government, unlike its predecessor, is not hemmed in by coalition compulsions and with a proven decisive leader at the helm, there should hopefully be quicker disposal of matters. But there is always a danger in such situations that arbitrary decision-making may become the order of the day. That is something Modi will have to guard against.
Modi’s personal integrity is beyond reproach as it was with Dr Manmohan Singh, but unlike the latter he is not gullible as Dr Singh was. In other words, he is his own man. He will have to remain so and not allow himself to be manipulated by a coterie if he is to negotiate the puddles and ditches along the power way.
One common criticism against Modi in coming days would predictably be that he rides roughshod over others. His decision to scrap the institutions of Empowered Group of Ministers and Group of Ministers would hopefully expedite decision-making and usher in greater accountability.
The mechanism of EGoMs and GoMs created by the Vajpayee-led NDA government to resolve contentious issues became, under UPA, an instrument to delay decisions. In the process, the authority and supremacy of PMO got eroded. Under a strong leader like Modi, that erosion would in any case be halted.
The author is a former journalist