In a battle for territory, first the Air Force flies overhead, spotting targets, and weakening the resistance through well-aimed salvos. Then the tanks move in and take control of the territory. Afterwards, infantry units are sent in to hold the ground seized. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the same role as the Air Force in ensuring that the “territory” of good governance spreads at the expense of the vast expanses of misgovernment that are the norm in India. From above, his role is to spot the territory and through his words and actions weaken the opposition to better methods, thereby giving strength to those seeking change. Afterwards, his ministerial colleagues and the senior officers in their respective departments have to move in and hold the ground won by the PM, finally sending in “troops” of officials to retain control of the process in a manner which transforms misgovernment into good governance.
In a few ministries, this division of labour is taking place and changes are being effected, while in others, as yet the “tanks” are stationary, thereby creating a risk that the efforts of Narendra Modi will go in vain because of a lack of adequate and suitable follow up at levels lower than the Prime Ministership of India. Despite the less than admiring verdicts returned by pundits in India and abroad, the fact is that Modi has already made a difference to the processes of governance, and is steadily moving the giant machinery onto a 21st century track from the 19th century rails, in which it had been standing since the 1800s. However, this is a government that seems to believe that less communication is better than more communication, an approach which has extended also to a ban on the practice of taking along journalists on visits abroad by the PM. In most of these, Modi has done exceptionally well, especially in the US and in China, and taking along a bigger cohort of journalists from print, television and online media than could afford the trip themselves would have helped coverage of the many breakthroughs made by an individual who has, without a pause, morphed within 18 months from a regional to a national and thereafter to an international leader, acknowledged across the globe as such in a way that only Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were.
“Air Force Modi” moved in early in his term and dispensed with the Planning Commission, replacing that dinosaur with the NITI Aayog. This sent the message that the era of centralised planning was dead, more than a generation after most other major economies had abandoned such top-down methods of development. Thus far, the Prime Minister has resisted the temptation to fill the new organisation with retired and serving bureaucrats, although there will certainly be pressure from this from an officialdom used to moving into all available spaces within the mechanism of governance. Among the principal defects in India’s British-era system of law and governance is the absence of cross-fertilisation that would take place were there to be more, much more, of lateral entry into the many silos of government. Far from ensuring a mix of outside experts and professional administrators in each ministry, there is not even osmosis between the different silos of the bureaucracy. For example, a strong case exists for bringing in members of the defence forces into the Defence Ministry, or to seed some posts in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) with defence and police personnel and vice versa, so that each will get the measure of the other as well as appreciate the problems and constraints faced within each silo. In Delhi, the Central Secretariat staff has formed an impervious crust within the various wings of government, in a context where mixing and melding of different streams and talents needs to get institutionalised. Hopefully, all this will change in Year 3 if not Year 2 of Circa Modi.
Now that NITI Aayog has been formed, what needs to be done to “win the ground” for good governance across the spectrum of administration is to populate the new body with those who can make a difference — by having a perspective different from the bureaucracy — to the processes of governance. There needs to be a Member (Agriculture), a Member (IT) — and this columnist would recommend Anupam Saraph for the job, who kicked off the debate on net neutrality by an op-ed in this newspaper, which went viral across the globe — as well as Members for Defence, Finance, HRD, Health, Infrastructure, Internal Security and even Foreign Affairs. Those selected should each have an office both in the Aayog as well as in the ministries they are proficient in, with the right to participate in meetings and in the overall formulation of policy. They should report to the Prime Minister, who ought to be the Chairperson of the NITI Aayog, and spend some of his time in this office, so as to get an institutional and structured, but non-bureaucratic option to various policies.
In the present Aayog, Bibek Debroy, for example, needs to be a frequent presence at North Block rather than expend his energies on a scatter of subjects in the seclusion of his office room. A good beginning has been made by having a meeting in Bhopal, and such decentralisation should be encouraged, including through branches of the Aayog in four different corners of India: Kerala, Mizoram, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
The plan by Prime Minister Modi of replacing the Planning Commission by the NITI Aayog needs to be brought to the takeoff stage, and this will happen when in effect the new institution becomes in effect an extension of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is and should always be the fulcrum of the governance system in India, assisting it in a manner complementary with the bureaucracy. NITI Aayog has to move from the “Air Force” to the “tank” stage, before the “infantry” of officialdom boosted by civil society entrants moves in to occupy the territory of good governance it wins for the Prime Minister. Now that “Air Force Modi” has done its job, it’s time the “tanks” — his colleagues in the Council of Ministers and their key officials — work at broadening its wambit, especially in the task of replacing obsolete procedures and policies with 21st century replacements.