Simple but direct, India’s first post-Nehruvian Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi takes seriously his core mantra of minimum government and maximum governance. In the month that has gone by, there has been a fundamental change in the chemistry of Delhi. For very long, in fact ever since Indira Gandhi fell in a fusillade of bullets on 31 October 1984, there has been a virtual vacuum where it came to the existence of a government in India that had a clear focus and leadership. There has very rarely been the perception of a unified command authority atop Raisina Hill, only discrete groups who each took care of their own turf. This fragmentation of governance became most pronounced during the decade when Manmohan Singh was in charge. Ministers such as P. Chidambaram, A.K. Antony or Sushilkumar Shinde acted as though the ministries under their command were in substance the entire Government of India, so that the government became a bundle of silos headed by solo players refusing to integrate into the coordinated entity that the Government of India needs to be.
On 26 May this changed. Although the Prime Minister is largely unseen, surfacing only through tweets or in the brief intervals when he meets some dignitary or the other, it is clear that there is finally an individual in charge of the entire government, and that the GOI has become a unified field rather than a scatter of silos. Whether it be the holding of secretary-level meetings without an accompanying cacophony of ministerial voices, or ensuring that the horde of fixers and dealers in the National Capital Region, who masquerade as private secretaries or personal assistants to ministers, the new Prime Minister has imprinted his stamp on the entire machinery of governance in a way seen only during the periods when Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi was in charge. Gone is the public panic that was present at what was considered to be a governance vacuum in the country, especially since the Commonwealth Games scam exploded in 2010.
In view of this columnist, it will be at least September before the full outlines of the Modi Model of all-India governance emerge from the mind of a workaholic who regards a 16-hour day as a light schedule. Civil servants inhabiting the warren of offices scattered across Delhi must never have believed that a time would come when coming to work at 9.30 a.m. was seen as late or when a day with a work component of less than 12 hours was considered a mark of shirking. Prime Minister Modi has a roster of tasks, each with a timeline and the face of the individual expected to carry it out.
Certainly, within the next few months if not weeks, a completed team capable of carrying out the 21st century vision of the country’s new Prime Minister will form. Some will be new entrants, hopefully not entirely from within the portals of the administrative services, but from business, academics and broader civil society as well. After all, if ISRO is doing so much better than DRDO, surely at least a part of the reason must be the fact that the Department of Space is headed by an expert, but the officialdom of the Ministry of Defence is headed by a generalist civil servant. If experts such as M.S. Swaminathan or Anil Kakodkar were not given the administrative leeway that comes from heading departments relevant to their fields of endeavour, the country would have been the loser.
However, some in his team may themselves have smudged his image, by careless actions that are casually exposed in public. An example is the Home Ministry circular that had the potential to revive divisions over language that had been dormant since 1965. Fortunately, the PMO stepped in to douse the fire caused by the Home Ministry. Yet another embarrassment has been the Gopal Subramanium episode, when the IB and the CBI fell over each other to collect evidence of the former Solicitor-General’s “unsuitability” for elevation to the Supreme Court, throwing up such laughable objections as the jurist asking the Divine for guidance (which deist does not?) or his knowing a lady PR specialist who has been close to several VVIPs cutting across parties, including more than a few in the present dispensation.
The Hindi circular was the brainchild of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, while the animus towards Gopal Subramanium has been traced to a former law minister in the UPA who is close to two ministers in the NDA council of ministers, and who apparently persuaded others to launch a series of media leaks targeting the former Solicitor-General, to discomfort from the general public at such character assassination. Those who have been given positions of high responsibility by Prime Minister Modi need to protect his name from getting affected by errors they sometimes make. A continuance of the sky-high image of Narendra Modi is crucial to his ensuring the cooperation of both officials and the public in his drive to raise growth rates to two digits, hopefully to the 15% level reached in China during some of the Deng years. Should he succeed, that would not just be a great legacy, but more importantly, the means of deliverance from effective poverty for 700 million of our citizens, as at present, less than 500 million have a standard of life that can be considered even barely adequate by any civilised standard.