I had the unique opportunity to observe from within the functioning of the Narendra Modi administration for over two years, as head of the national public broadcaster. I resigned before my term, when I could take it no more. I witnessed at close quarters the collapse of the apparatus of governance, which invariably invites catastrophes of the type we are suffering now.
At a conceptual level, the problem arose when the square peg of an American Presidential system that legitimised a highly personalised style of functioning was hammered into the round hole of the existing British-inspired Cabinet system. It does not require a very high IQ to realise that a vast and impossibly diverse country like India can function only through a ‘federal equilibrium’ and other impositions destroy a carefully crafted power/responsibility-sharing model, without a better alternative.
The initial euphoria over the arrival of a decisive leadership after years of listless governance, however, gave way to another grim reality. Senior officials had hoped that Modi would deactivate his suspicious nature and curb his urge to centralise powers and demand unquestioned obedience—now that he had reached the pinnacle. They were soon disappointed, though he did slash through the proverbial inter-ministerial turf battles. But the frequency and intensity with which he started summoning secretaries directly for briefings and presentations were quite unusual, as no PM had tried such micro-management.
It revealed his ‘control freak’ nature, his deliberate bypassing of his ministers. Modi soon sized up his secretaries, not necessarily correctly, and his permanent scowl started sending cold shivers. He then resorted to his unabashed mode of operating through favourites, which demoralised other equally or more talented officers. The latter had not crawled to ingratiate themselves. Lightning transfers became commonplace, and the PMO controlled every appointment to senior posts, as well as to boards and committees. Though inputs were taken from the RSS, the Intelligence Bureau and the spy chief, the NSA, mattered more. Stalinist shadows grew longer and head-less organisations suffered when appointments took years. Babus and businessmen, however, learnt to fake everlasting loyalty and started wooing Sanghis.
But no government could function with just handpicked cheerleaders, and experienced bureaucrats stopped sharing their lifelong experience, out of fear, and the political savvy of ministers was treated with contempt. As the Cabinet system crashed and responsibility became opaque, India’s performance ranking in all internationally comparable indices started tumbling, every year. And the inviolability of statistics disappeared, as fudging began. Officers realised that only style and spectacle mattered, not substance.
All existing welfare schemes were revamped, taking care to rename them as ‘Pradhan Mantri’ yojanas. Catchy tag-lines and acronyms were produced by highly paid professional advertising agencies and the PM loved playing around with alphabets. It is not as if no work was done, but that it was suicidal to report adverse feedback. But no one was prepared when earth-shaking policies, like demonetisation, were decided in secret, without proper discussions. The leader was thrilled to stun the nation with dramatic announcements.
Thus, when Covid-19 broke out last year, showmanship and event management were top priority. Essential tasks like factoring in expert advice, learning from others’ experience and planning/arranging for critical requirements were considered less glamorous. Over-centralisation meant that producing, procuring and distributing even low-skill items like masks and PPE kits were decided by Raisina Hill. The knee-jerk and theatrical declaration of nationwide lockdown in March 2020, when the curve of infections had barely risen, was quite unwarranted but it demonstrated raw power.
It broke the spine of an already badly slip-disced economy. Just because the home minister was/is Modi’s most trusted factotum, all decisions, even those well beyond its competence, were decided by the lathi-wielding home ministry, not the health ministry. Regular imperious edicts flowed, without consultation. Relief work has always been an integral part of Indian administration, but since the two leaders maintained an eerie silence on the plight of migrant workers, no relief camps came up to alleviate such an enormous human tragedy.
While every sensible nation planned the production, import and distribution of vaccines and oxygen several months ago, India woke up to issues like pricing, supplies and international obligations only a couple of months ago. Even simple arithmetic of supply versus demand was hardly understood, advice from specialists received lower priority and the regime let its defences down. Modi announced India’s total victory over Covid and declared that we were the “pharmacy of the world”.
Precious vaccines and oxygen were exported but it was ultimately the Kumbh Mela’s millions that invited the wrath of the gods. The second wave was provoked to hit us, and when it did, Modi-Shah were busy with election rallies to respond seriously. Their unequivocally centralised government collapsed, and those most responsible absconded, as unprecedented chaos reigns. Modi was soon roasted over the coals by the international media that carpet-bombed all with tragic visuals of death and disaster, indicting him mercilessly for letting the world down.
The invincible ‘spell’ is finally breaking, but what we need immediately is fire-fighting and imaginative response, not vengeance.
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati