Time for maximum Modi, minimum Govt

With more than half of India already saffronised, the PM should revisit his previous basic promises which he left trusted ministers and babus to implement.
Time for maximum Modi, minimum Govt
Photo - PTI

Politicians who show promise face a crisis of promise when they begin to slide on the delivery index. India’s chutzpah chief Narendra Modi has been on the top of his game from 2014 till 2024. Electoral verdicts that go from exhilaration to deceleration convey both warnings and reminders: mend or perish. Most importantly, the warnings are vox populi questions to winners and losers about promises made and forgotten.

Under Modi, BJP did spring some suprises: it opened its account in Kerala and formed its first government in Odisha. Now his promoters, followers, friends and foes expect him to deliver at least on his word to sustain ‘Modi ki guarantee’, if not more. Since 2014, India has acquired a new image and meaning. It is one of the top five global economies and the fastest growing large one. It has made pioneering progress in innovation and technology. Its presence is mandatory at every diplomatic high table. It is a preferred FDI destination. To wipe the moss off the gloss, Modi must reacquire his mojo and majority.

First, no more new slogans sans substance. One of Modi’s stellar achievements was to send the Indian psyche to rehab to cure its pseudo secularism. Modi’s barmy army privately expects him to dilute his hard Hindutva crusade. It has delivered maximum electoral dividend. With more than half of India already saffronised, the PM should revisit his previous basic promises which he left trusted ministers and babus to implement.

Swachh Bharat and ‘Maximum governance and minimum government’ would have been game-changers had they been implemented with commitment. The blame falls on the bureaucracy, which refuses to change and respond to the needs of aspirational India.

Unfortunately, he didn’t or couldn’t give it the attention and monitoring it deserved. Modi declared: “I believe government has no business to do business. The focus should be on minimum government, but maximum governance. For decades, we have had extraordinarily large governments while, ironically, the quality of governance has been quite poor. More attention has been paid to the size of the government and not so much to its quality.”

Ten years later, his own government’s size is bloating. Expenditure is rising faster than the GDP. Salaries and allowances are likely to increase from Rs 2.80 lakh crore in 2023 to over Rs 3 lakh crore next year. The number of sarkari employees will be up from 31 lakh to 35 lakh. Irony just died: India’ mojo is maximum technology, but the government hires more and more people to do the same job. For example, the sanctioned strength of the direct tax department has climbed from 49,000 to 79,000 in two years.

According to the latest budget documents, the number of officials dealing with indirect taxation will go up from 53,000 to 92,000. The family welfare ministry’s employee count will rise from 20,000 to 28,000. But only 61 officials will be in R&D. The culture ministry has 10,000-plus staff, while the tourism department has only 583—any wonder it seems more like ‘diva bhava’ than ‘atithi devo bhava’?

Modi’s jumbo cabinet tradition, which started in his first term, continues in this coalition government. There are 30 cabinet ministers, five ministers of state with independent charge and 41 ministers of state. According to unofficial estimates, the monthly bill to maintain each minister, their staff and perks exceeds Rs 1 crore. India has 53 ministries and around 80 departments.

There is a minister of industry, a minister of heavy industries and a minister of micro, small and medium enterprises; a minister for power and one for new and renewable energy; a minister for education and one for skill development.

Rajiv Gandhi tried to rationalise government by merging ministries: for example, railways, surface transport and civil aviation were merged as one. He had to dismantle his aggregator model under political compulsions. More that ministry numbers, the money and time splurged on keeping the system alive is the crisis. According to the department of personnel, each cabinet minister is entitled to a personal staff of 15—a private secretary, additional secretary, assistant private secretary, first personal secretary, second personal secretary, Hindi stenographer, a clerk, a driver, an attendant and four peons. If a cabinet minister holds two or three portfolios, they can double or triple staff numbers to create a mini empire with taxpayers’ money.

An MoS with independent charge is entitled to an 11-member personal team. An MoS gets nine. In Modi’s government, all five MoSes with independent charge have been given additional charge under a cabinet Minister. And 20 of the 41 MoSes have been allocated two or more departments—for example, Jitendra Singh holds two independent charges and four other portfolios. If he chooses, he can have an army of 60 personal staff. Hence, most ministers have at least 20-25 persons working in their various offices. This maximises not only peregrinations from between offices, but also delays decision making. The number of secretary-level officers has risen by almost 50 percent in the last decade.

Modi couldn’t wield the broom in the dirty closets of the highly-hyped Swachh Bharat Mission. It became a photo op for attention-addictive celebs and politicians. Modi chose rich and famous films stars, media barons, industrialists, civil society leaders and sportspersons as ambassadors of Swachh Bharat.

In association with various government agencies, they were expected to adopt a few neglected places and hold events to spread awareness. The funding was massive. The PM’s objective was to erase the image of India as a subcontinent of squalor. But his chosen champions betrayed him; they lost interest, and so did the government. Modi failed to mobilise local bodies and elected representatives like municipal councillors, health and sanitary officials and involve the youth.

All municipal corporations comprise corruption caucuses. Some have higher budgets than a mid-level state. A nefarious nexus of sanitary inspectors, engineers, elected councillors and commissioners have converted cities into stinking slums. Indian rivers are sewage pits. Roads and houses are flooded during heavy rains. Airport roofs are collapsing, while airports, and bus and train stations are under water.

Modi must give fresh impetus to a new Swachh Bharat campaign. Corporates have made billions from a liberalised economic regime. Modi must convince them that removing and treating garbage and sewage make good business and serve a social cause. Such a massive nationwide campaign would create employment, introduce new technology, invite investment in hygiene products and lead to a mass movement personally led by Modi. Nobody has paid the price for keeping India filthy. The government must make the culprits as accountable as economic offenders. The glitter of surging stock markets will vanish if India becomes unliveable.

To ensure a fourth win at the Centre in 2029 and retain its states, BJP needs a new Modi. The current numbers and slogans have outlived their utility. India will become a $5-trillion economy sooner than later. A swasth Modi would mean both Swachh and Samriddh Bharat. Invention must replace invective, and vindication must replace vindictiveness of ideologically-unaccredited attention-seekers for Modi 4.0 to arrive with a bang, not slang.

PRABHU CHAWLA

prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com

Follow him on X @PrabhuChawla

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