More hype than productive diplomacy
Governance through disruption is interruption through intention. From Day One, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been redefining and restructuring almost every institution dealing directly with governance. Out with the Planning Commission. Change the composition of important Cabinet Committees. Distribute unconnected portfolios to ministers. However, South Block mandarins had hoped that he would leave alone the MEA’s seven decades of institutional monopoly. Last week, diplomat-turned-politico S Jaishankar, with the least experience in domestic politics but most experienced in getting plum postings, was seen not merely as part of Modi’s foreign entourage but also sticking closely to the PM’s heels. Unlike previous FMs like Sushma Swaraj and Yashwant Sinha who were rarely part of Vajpayee’s or Modi’s delegations, the poker-faced Jaishankar is omnipresent.
Another tradition was trashed by including the foreign secretary in most of Modi’s diplomatic sojourns. Only the EAM or the territorial secretary had that honour before; the EAM joined only when the PM visited countries under his direct suzerainty. For decades, what was called the collegium system of all secretaries in MEA handling autonomous divisions and reporting directly to the FM prevailed. This changed drastically when Jaishankar became Foreign Secretary barely three days before retirement. He became the single window access to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, and dismantled the previous system. He and NSA Ajit Doval are ever present in Modi’s team.
Since Jaishankar had established a close rapport with Modi during his China and US visits where the deadpan diplomat was ambassador, the PM gave him the corner room. The ex-foreign secretary became indispensable, thanks to his familiarity with the mannerisms of foreign diplomats but has hardly their substance. He has rarely spoken on foreign policy to a domestic political audience. He exploits his close contacts with international think tanks to fly above BJP leaders and IFS babus. His monopoly over the diplomatic discourse has substantially reduced political inputs in diplomacy. Many apparatchiks in the Foreign Office have begun to notice that their boss’s counterparts treat him lukewarmly. What this means is India’s flagging and often caught on the wrong foot diplomacy, crafted by a file pusher. It needs a Modi mojo.
No longer a missing link
The PMO is in a constant state of evolution. The Prime Minister loves new experiments and devising new rules of governance. The 47-member strong PMO has seen many structural changes since 2014. It has always been dominated by retired civil servants who are chosen for their inside and extensive knowledge about governance. Recently, Amit Khare, who retired as Secretary, Higher Education and I&B, was appointed as the second Advisor to the PM with Secretary rank - the other being Bhaskar Kulbe. Previously, three PMO officials enjoyed Cabinet rank but now there are only two including the NSA. But Khare’s role is being closely watched. Since the implementation of the New Education Policy and media guidelines for digital and electronic media are the top priority, Khare with his affable and accessible nature is expected to be the link between the media and the PM. Modi has refrained from appointing a media advisor and gave media management to trusted but intrusively mannered aides from Gujarat. Khare is likely to be Modi’s ears and eyes which can reduce the trust deficit between the PMO and the press.
Never tired or retired
Despite hounding and arrest by investigative agencies, Indian bankers see some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a superstar who is the darling of every government and hogs both the limelight and power. He neither tires nor retires. While there is an age bar on almost all government positions, he is evergreen. Former banker Kundapur Vaman Kamath, 73, was recently appointed the Chairperson of the newly created National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development (NaBFID). Ever since he graduated from IIM-Ahmedabad in 1971, Kamath’s upwards trajectory has been smooth. On the verge of retirement, the government of the day gives him a better job. Kamath began as a junior management official at ICICI. He left in 1988 to join Manila-based Asian Development Bank and returned as ICICI’s MD and CEO in 1996. He leveraged his charm and connections with the Mumbai’s corporate leaders to convert the institution into a bank. Their patronage ensured his continuance at the bank’s helm till 2009.
It was during his tenure that one of India’s bigger banks became what was later termed “Indian owned Foreign Bank” sans formal government approval. Kamath enjoyed the distinction of retaining the non-executive chairmanship of ICICI and Infosys chairmanship simultaneously. In 2015 when his Infosys term expired, Modi chose him to head the newly created BRICS Development Bank based in Shanghai. After serving his five-year term, he was appointed to lead important panels in the financial sector. Since he has always kept a low profile, Kamath hasn’t faced much public scrutiny. At BRICS Bank, he was expected to deliver wonders by raising massive funds.
According to latest reports, the Bank had committed $15 billion to various infrastructure development projects. But by the end of December 2019, only 10 per cent ($1.5 billion) was disbursed. At his sunset age, Kamath has been tasked to deploy `20,000 crore to revive India’s fund-starved infra sector. To ensure speedy disbursal NaBFID funds, the new DFI is insulated against scrutiny by CAG or investigation by CBI or ED. His peers in the banking system are hoping for similar privileges. However, Kamath is considered the banker for all seasons and causes since he has been a director of international companies dealing in pharma, oil and IT while serving the boards of many academic institutions.
A heartland warning
As the countdown for the Uttar Pradesh elections begins, pollsters are hyperactive in predicting the outcome. Since various agencies have unofficially banned opinion polls, parties have hired their own agencies to assess their prospects. A current survey predicts the BJP winning a maximum of 245 seats if there is no further erosion of caste support in its ranks. The poll also indicates that over a dozen ministers would lose. It concludes that the BJP can break the jinx of no party getting a second term since 1989, thanks to Yogi Adityanath’s forceful, clean and staunch image. The study indicates that the party would suffer huge losses in western UP by getting less than 30 seats out of 75. This means the farmers’ fury is making a huge dent even as the leadership remains blind to the possibility.
Prabhu chawla (email@example.com)
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla