Recall this time last year. The country was in the throes of a general election the electorate instinctively accepted as a game-changer. The nation was agog with the prospects of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi storming the central bastion and transforming the Indian state from a slow-paced elephant into a pouncing tiger.
The story of Modi’s spectacular rise from selling tea on trains to commanding India has in it something of Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. His ascent signalling to the poor, the weak and the youth the importance of working for a better tomorrow by relying on one’s self rather than on the handouts from an abomination of a “mai-baap sarkar”. It represented an ideology of self-help and an antidote to the stale socialism of family outfits masquerading as political parties grown rich by suckling at the teats of a nanny state. It reached absurd levels with Sonia Gandhi during the election campaign declaring Marie Antoinette-like—“We gave you Rights”—as if paper rights confer material benefits or are a substitute for them!
Recall too the worried hubbub within the ranks of the bureaucracy, the so-called permanent secretariat in the government of India. They apprehended a ruthless slashing of the public payroll, elimination of countless government agencies and departments, and introduction of accountability. Modi’s personal rectitude and reputation as hard taskmaster who wrenched good governance out of the Gujarat state apparatus, moreover, sent shivers down the spines of babus everywhere. The Modi hammer was expected to fall on red tape, the slovenly ways of the government, and the unproductive and wasteful public sector. None of this has happened but Modi has shown an unusual appetite for foreign trips.
Perhaps consumed by the pomp and novelty of tours abroad—16 in the last 11 months—Modi sought promises of billions of investment dollars and help for “Make in India” schemes. But neither the dollars nor the schemes have materialised because he hasn’t called a joint session of Parliament to remove unfriendly land acquisition laws or retroactive tax regimes. Modi has also had embarrassing missteps. His initiation of the Rafale combat aircraft deal on government-to-government basis without competitive bidding and genuine technology transfer, for instance, is a throwback to the bad old system of scams, scandals, and corruption that characterised Congress party rule.
Modi could have taken the most radical measures to remake the government, overturn the system, and build anew, but he didn’t. He played safe and has achieved little. Not only has there been no organisational overhaul, but there has also been no evidence of rewriting of the “rules of business” within the government or streamlining of its functioning. The irony is, as one of Modi’s ministers confided to me, instead of imposing himself on the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has imposed itself on Modi, imprinting its views, values, and methods on a prime minister who was expected to show apparatchiks their place. So, it is the taming of Modi by the babus that is at the heart of why things are going wrong.
There are two other factors to explain the slide in Modi’s fortunes. One pertains to the usual outcome of any electoral victory in India—unruly elements within the new ruling dispensation or its support base flexing their muscles, going on a violent binge. In the BJP’s case, the Hindu fringe lit fires of “love jihad”, attacked churches and, the newly elected BJP Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, by banning beef, even legislated what people can eat. It has frazzled the middle class and lowered the PM’s stock, showing up Modi’s powerlessness. If he cannot check indiscipline in his own party, the possibility of his bringing order to the country is remote.
The other factor has to do with the centralisation of power with almost all (presumably major) decisions requiring the prime minister’s approval, according to my ministerial acquaintance. For a PM-centric system to work, however, requires a large Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with an array of specialists mustering comprehensive expertise that Modi can call on to assess the policy choices forwarded by ministries, suggest new options, and to shape his decisions. But Modi is handicapped because while the PMO is numerically large it is not very capable, manned as it is by hordes of civil servants. Besides, the oversight that should be exercised especially over strategic economic and foreign and military policies by the National Security Adviser, according to this insider, is missing because the competence of the present incumbent, Ajit Doval, doesn’t cover more than the intelligence field and his attention doesn’t stray beyond Pakistan.
It is a pity that when Modi had the intellectual wealth of the country to draw upon to engineer more creative policies and programmes, he chose to stick with the babus and the institutional status quo. But this system is of Modi’s contrivance. And its performance in the past year signposts what the country can expect in the future—steady under-performance, legacy programmes dressed in new rhetoric, and shoddy implementation, unless there is radical improvement. In the past year 178 infrastructure projects worth six lakh crore rupees have been cleared with nothing to show for it on the ground.
The insider also cannily observed that Gujarat is not India and managing the show in Gandhinagar is small preparation for running the government of India. In any case, the default position of any PM who finds himself in over his head, he said, is to leave it to the permanent secretariat to do the job. Modi promised much but seems to have lost his nerve for doing big things. The voter has every reason to feel cheated.
This slide can be arrested. Modi has four more years to prove he is not a political shooting star. The PM should remember that the people mandated him to realise his new vision, which the existing civil servant-shackled order cannot translate into imaginative ideas and policies for transformative change. He has so far wasted his political capital in system-tinkering. He can expend what remains of it in reconfiguring the policy-making process by calling in outside experts to intellectually revitalise a government in doldrums. There is no time to lose.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharat karnad.com