NaMo as CM vs NaMo as PM

Madhu Purnima Kishwar

Jun 06, 2015, 09:53 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 10:05 AM IST

Though the NDA government has done a lot of good work in its first year, what is puzzling is how Narendra Modi has changed as a person, politician and administrator since he moved to Delhi. The first part of a two-part series.

It is not easy to undertake an objective evaluation of one year of the Narendra Modi government because the forces that tried desperately to thwart his rise to power as PM have become hyperactive in recent months in trashing his regime. The anti BJP fauj of intellectuals as well as media men and women patronized by the Congress and Left parties had never really made peace with Modi occupying the PM’s chair. In the wake of his spectacular victory, for a brief while they had perforce moderated their hostility to him. But their knives are out once again and the Congress-Left combine has been desperately trying to tar the government in negative hues.

The positive achievements of Modi government are systematically downplayed while even minor lapses are blown out of all proportion in order to put a stamp of failure. Fortunately for Modi, the credentials of the Congress-left combine are rather dismal. A Rahul Gandhi taking cheap pot shots at Modi may give orgasmic delights to professional Modi-baiters but the response of people at large is “chhaj to bole so bole, chhanani kya bole jisme 72 chhed hain”(a case of pot calling the kettle black). Therefore, among the janata at large, his approval ratings are still fairly high. Despite very modest performance in the delivery of his promises, people are still hopeful about Modi and consider him the best available choice as PM with all other options getting far lower ratings. But the warning signals are also loud and clear that disenchantment is lurking right round the corner.

Here is an illustrative example of the kind of negativity generated by pro-Congress media. It is well known among media circles that both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi used to frequently disappear from the country to undisclosed foreign destinations. Their trips abroad were literally treated as state secrets. Even RTI queries failed to elicit any information on their many secret jaunts. And yet no one in the media or among the chatterati made any fuss about it.

By contrast, the 18-odd countries Modi has visited on official trips in one year have been made objects of attack and derision. This despite the fact that none of the trips were pleasure jaunts and the PM did not take even one day off during this entire year. Moreover, each of the trips yielded significant gains either by way of major defence deals or foreign investments or sorting out geopolitical security-related issues. His proactive foreign policy is a much-needed course correction from the rudderless policy of the UPA days. But the impression sought to be created by Modi’s opponents is that he is a Non-Resident PM and his foreign trips are meant for self-promotion.

Similarly, Modi has faced endless flak for certain light-hearted critical comments he made while addressing NRIs abroad about the previous scam ridden Congress regime, though without naming any political party or person. However, the very same politicians, media persons and intellectuals who expressed outrage at the impropriety of Modi’s potshots at the UPA regime on foreign soil were active in a vitriolic international campaign against Modi that included branding him a mass murderer even though not a single FIR had been registered against him.

Worse still, they appealed to the US and other foreign governments to deny Modi visas to visit those countries as Gujarat Chief Minister. Never before has a ruling party at the Centre used its clout to humiliate and defame a popularly elected chief minister of a rival party in the international arena,  that too when even the Supreme Court-appointed SIT had exonerated him. But that gross impropriety was widely approved by the same people who cannot stomach even mild banter by Modi against the previous UPA government.

The most absurd charge levelled against Modi is that he is a capitalist crony. It is a well-established fact that crony capitalism thrived under the socialist-minded regimes of the Congress which ruled for nearly six decades. Ambani or Adani are not Modi creations. They came into being and acquired clout under Congress rule. What do his opponents expect Modi to do? Shoot them? As pointed out by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar in The Times of India (May 24, 2015):

“When Modi was elected on May 15 last year, the sensex was at 27,159. Today it is up only marginally at 27,957. So much for the supposed Modi sell out to business! Easily the biggest gainers have been small to medium companies. Clearly Adani Enterprises has been outperformed by dozens of other stocks. Dhirubhai Ambani was a notorious Congress crony and master manipulator. It’s somewhat ridiculous for his companies to be called BJP cronies by Rahul.”

Despite all these stories about favouritism to Adani in Gujarat, the fact is that Modi created an overall business-friendly ecosystem. Even small scale industry thrived. People from many other states who went and invested in Gujarat prospered fast. Adani’s growth ought not to be an issue if others are also allowed due space to thrive. However, it was indeed not appropriate of Modi to personally preside over Adani signing mining contracts in Australia. But as Aiyar points out for “fear of being accused of cronyism, Modi leaned on the State Bank of India to mothball a proposed big loan for Adani’s Australian coal project”. Far from encouraging cronyism, the general complaint of industrialists is that Modi is now totally inaccessible. He addresses only policy matters, not individual projects. To quote Aiyar again; “Industrialists can no more negotiate clearances and policy changes at private meetings, nor influence appointments of bank chairmen or get inconvenient bureaucrats transferred.” (TOI, May 17, 2015)

Never before has any prime minister of India faced such a hostile intellectual class and such a large segment of leaders within his own party who are all desperate to see him fail. In this negatively surcharged environment created with the help of hysterical anchors on 24×7 news channels and large sections of Modi-averse print media, it is hard to be sure whether one’s assessment is objective and unbiased.

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All I can say in the defense of the following critique is that this is not the product of pathological aversion to either BJP or Narendra Modi. In fact, this is the critique of a well wisher who is deeply desirous of seeing the Modi government succeed. This is because I am convinced that despite many weaknesses, he has many of the essential qualities that are required of a leader to confront the key challenges facing India today. More importantly, India cannot afford to have one more failed regime, given that we occupy the bottom rungs in the world’s human development index and are falling behind even neighbouring Bangladesh.

On the Plus Side

Let’s look at the plus side of Modi’s tenure first. There’s been no big ticket corruption, no scandal or scam as yet. Fixers, touts and wheeler-dealers that had acquired dangerous clout during the Sonia Gandhi regime, have been shut out of the corridors of power; powerful corporates can’t swing decisions in their favour on the basis of pay-offs.

Fiscal deficit is low as no corruption-friendly extravagant schemes have been announced. The system of cash transfers in welfare programmes has minimized the scope for siphoning off funds meant for the poor. The high priority accorded to financial inclusion through the massive outreach of Jan Dhan Yojana has the potential to be a game changer if most subsidies are directly transferred to these bank accounts. Along with it, if the life insurance, the health insurance and old age pension schemes for the poor are earnestly operationalized, it would be a historic step in providing a measure of social security to the vulnerable masses in the unorganized sector.

It shows good intent that arms purchases will be done government to government, thus cutting out middlemen. This in itself puts an end to the culture of kickbacks that had become endemic in defence purchases under previous governments. Modi is far more serious about national security issues – something the UPA government had neglected sorely. The much neglected requirements of the Indian armed forces are being paid far more serious attention than under Congress regimes. The biggest achievement here is the speedy approval of all those defence and other projects of strategic importance that have been pending for years. Opening up the defense and insurance sectors to foreign participation up to 49 percent was also a much needed policy initiative. The bureaucracy is under close watch and has been put on a tighter leash that has ensured regular and timely attendance by sarkari babus.

The speed, efficiency and sensitivity with which Yemen, Kashmir and Nepal rescue operations were carried out got international recognition.

The acceptance of the 14th Finance Commission’s Recommendations regarding devolving more funds to the states is also creditworthy. The figure now stands at 42 per cent of the total revenue collection, up from the earlier 32 per cent. Core inflation is down to 5 per cent.

Modi’s foreign policy initiatives have enhanced India’s global stature. His resolve to sort out contentious border issues including with China through negotiations is appreciation-worthy, especially since BJP’s opponents created a misleading image that Modi would indulge in jingoistic aggression towards our neighbours. The passage of the Bangladesh Land Accord Bill is a historic step aimed at transferring enclaves with a clear demarcation of territory – thus putting an end to an old irritant and misery for citizens trapped in those enclaves.

A good amount of transparency has been brought into coal and spectrum auctions which have consequently improved the government’s fiscal health. Power sector reforms are leading to increase in coal production, as well as power capacity and generation. The decision that revenue realized through coal auctions shall go to states is also a major step in strengthening the spirit of cooperative federalism. The replacement of the imperious Planning Commission with NITI Aayog in order to promote federalism in decision making vis-a-vis states is a major paradigm shift and demonstrates good intent. However, it’s not yet clear that it is working effectively towards that end.

MUDRA bank aimed at providing finance to 5.7 crore small entrepreneurs is likely to give fillip to “Make in India” mission, provided other supportive reforms including end to the tyranny of inspector raj are put in place. The Ministry of Transport has already speeded up road construction and is likely to improve its performance in the coming year.

For the first time we witness a PM give personal attention to important social issues like cleanliness and the need to combat female feticide.

Super High Expectations Vs Performance

However, any evaluation of Modi’s tenure as PM is inevitably coloured by the super high expectations he raised during the election campaign as well as his track record as Gujarat chief minister. On that score, there is a glaring gap between Modi’s promise and performance as PM.

What made Modi a cult figure in Gujarat is that from day one he set aside third world standards for Gujarat and instead aspired towards international standards, be it in construction of roads, power supply, agricultural productivity or setting up industrial zones. As chief minister, Modi acquired the reputation for having a very sharp focus about what needed to be done and he had a clear road map on how to go about it. Before a project was announced, resource allocation and timeframe for execution was clearly laid out. He was known to pick the right man for the right job and he was admired for not having favourites. No official or minister could claim such proximity to him as to “influence” his decisions.

Everybody talked admiringly about how he was a great listener and was easily accessible not just to officials but also ordinary citizens. I met numerous people—farmers, fishermen, and students etc, who narrated incidents of how their requests for meetings were easily granted. If someone left a phone message with his office, he/she would often get a call back within hours. Even junior officers posted in the district could get an appointment without much ado.

He was constantly travelling to different parts of the state and had direct contact with diverse sections of society. He had weekly meetings with his MLAs – on a pre-fixed day, so that they could bring their concerns to his notice on a regular basis. But he did not let them interfere in the execution of government programmes and projects. They were not even allowed to come and meet officials in the Secretariat. This kept them on a tight leash. The same held good for his Cabinet colleagues. The Cabinet met every single week on a set day to thrash out issues and decide matters. But once a decision was taken, Modi saw to it that no minister was allowed to interfere in its execution.

He gave his bureaucrats a free hand in executing projects once decisions had been taken through mutual consultations and monitored their performance very closely, which left much less scope for corruption. Gujarat had his personal stamp in every field with a clear command and control structure established in the CMO.

As CM, his opponents both within and outside the party did point to his authoritarian ways and his penchant for excessive self-projection while totally overshadowing his political colleagues and systematic marginalization of those who posed a challenge to his unquestioned authority. But the model of responsive governance and economic development he provided in Gujarat effectively countered his critics. The systemic innovations brought about by Modi dramatically improved the delivery system. Hence his popularity among citizens soared high. Therefore, none of his political colleagues dared raise the banner of revolt.

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Modi as PM—a Different Persona?

However, Modi as PM appears to have evolved a somewhat different persona from what he was as CM. The most noteworthy difference is that he has built a cocoon around himself and has become highly inaccessible even for his party colleagues, leading to a great deal of resentment within the BJP rank and file. His popularity rating is much higher today than among his party workers and colleagues. Some of it may be due to the much enhanced scope of his responsibilities. But a good part of it appears to be an inexplicable desire to distance himself from his old associates and supporters while relying excessively on the one and only Arun Jaitley who seems to have become larger than life power centre as well as Modi’s gatekeeper who appears to control people’s access to Modi.

All those old associates of Modi who are not on good terms with Jaitley have been shut out completely. Their repeated requests for appointments have not even received a response, leave alone result in a meeting. Many key decisions, including some very harmful ones clearly have a Jaitley stamp. Many in BJP think Jaitley holds a veto power over Modi in important matters. He is the only one who had let it be known in advance that he was going to be Finance Minister when Modi came to power. He was not only rewarded with the portfolio of his choice but also additional charge of Defense Ministry when Modi announced his first cabinet. This despite the fact that Jaitley lacks knowledge of finance. In fact, his Minister of State, Jayant Sinha is far more deserving of the job.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Credits: AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI)
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Credits: AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI)

The excessive dependence on Arun Jaitley is attributed to Modi’s lack of confidence in handling the power elite of Lutyens Delhi whereas Jaitley has spent all his life mastering this art and very little else. This is evident from the fact that Jaitley always presides over Modi’s interactions with the media. In fact, the three recent interactions of the PM with senior journalists were strangely enough all hosted by Jaitley at his house. It is as though the PM needs Jailtley’s guiding hand in dealing with the media at home though he does very well without using Jaitley’s services on his foreign tours.

This kind of dependence has led to all manners of speculation and vicious rumours within the BJP itself because as Gujarat CM Modi had acquired the reputation of allowing no one to claim such influence or power over him. The PM needs to remember that people voted a Modi government to power; Jaitley lost even his own seat. Therefore, his being projected as the most vocal and authoritative face of the government sends a very wrong message. People want to see Modi in command which he is in his foreign policy initiatives. But on home turf, he has yielded so much power to his confidante and friend that it he appears to be what Sonia Gandhi was to Manmohan Singh.

Modi’s Cabinet Colleagues

It is noteworthy that much of the criticism of Modi government is on account of the flip flop of the finance ministry – whether with regard to recovery of black money from foreign shores or in the matter of retroactive taxation or the unwillingness to loosen the inspector raj. It has seriously shaken investor confidence. That is why the “Make in India” mission has failed to take off thus far. Industrial production, exports and bank credit are all in a dismal state. The real estate sector is in deep gloom. Stockmarkets have also lost their initial euphoria. Even while Modi goes wooing foreign capital, Indian industrialists at home are feeling disappointed because their problems are not getting sorted out. The system of single-window clearance for investors has not yet been set up. On the other hand, the pernicious Inspector-Raid-Raj is sought to be strengthened in the name of tracking black money.

There is gloom among corporates because they don’t yet see the BJP government chalk a new course on the economic front. Many in the BJP attribute it to the fact that P. Chidambaram is still influencing finance ministry decisions through his close buddy and confidante Arun Jaitley. He has not only retained key officers from the Chidambaram team but also assigned them key portfolios. Chidambaram himself has boasted to media on more than one occasion that the Modi government is dutifully following most of his policies while the mistakes are Jaitley’s own.

The inability to make a bold and clean break from disastrous policies and wisdom of the UPA government is costing Modi much goodwill. If Indian businessmen don’t consider India investment worthy, there is no way foreign investors will put their faith in India. And if that doesn’t happen, Modi will not be able to deliver on his promise of creating crores of new jobs every year.

An even more controversial appointment is that of Smriti Irani as HRD minister. Her daily shenanigans and all too visible incompetence for the job has done far more damage to Modi’s image than anything else thus far. The HRD ministry is now an object of derision and the butt of jokes. If Modi fails to fix the tragic mess that is the education sector of India today, he is not likely to succeed on other fronts either. He cannot fix the health sector without educating good doctors and nurses nor bring vibrancy into the industrial sector or produce good engineers, bureaucrats, police officers, policy makers or even defence personnel without a serious overhaul of the education sector.

(Credits: AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH)
(Credits: AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH)

The appointments of Jaitley and Irani have deeply upset people within his party. On the one hand, he rode rough shod over the party hierarchy by side lining most of the senior leaders. On the other hand, he gave some of the weightiest portfolios to those who have never won an election in their life. Therefore, even first time MPs like Meenakshi Lekhi are raging at Modi for denying them a ministerial berth. Ordinarily, if a person without a solid political base becomes a first-time MP, the person is elated. But here even young first timers are outraged because the PM has neither gone for seniority nor for merit barring in few appointments.

Mahohar Parrikar as Defence Minister, Suresh Prabhu as Railway Minister, Nitin Gadkari as Transport Minister, Piyush Goyal as Power Miniser and Jayant Sinha and Nirmala Sitharaman as Ministers of State are among the few who convey a sense of competence. Unfortunately, a credible face like Harsh Vardhan was unceremoniously removed as Health Minister even though he had a clean image and competence in that field. It makes no sense that the barely literate Sadhavi Niranjana has been made a MOS but Arun Shourie left out.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu (Credits: AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu (Credits: AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH)

Modi needs to remember that his stature as a tall leader depends on the stature of his chosen colleagues. By packing his Cabinet with political and intellectual dwarfs, he diminishes his own stature. Modi’s hero Mahatma Gandhi acquired the status of a political giant because he commanded the allegiance of numerous tall leaders like Sardar Patel. Conversely, the many pygmies and misfits in Modi’s Cabinet have put a serious question mark on Modi’s leadership qualities since the hallmark of good leadership is picking the best available talent as part of your team.

Even if Modi can’t do without his favourites, the least he owed the visibly incompetent among his Cabinet colleagues is to provide them with best possible team of advisors to meet the many complex challenges of their assigned jobs. For this he may have to scout for talent outside the party fold. There is no way he can micro manage each ministry and yet deliver good governance.

The lacklustre performance of several ministries is being widely attributed to the excessive centralization of power in the PMO. BJP insiders as well as bureaucrats say virtually every file has to be cleared by the PMO because the PM wants to keep a close watch on his ministerial colleagues. This is leading to a logjam in decision-making. Modi’s well-wishers attribute it to his desire to curb corruption but his critics say this is because Modi is a control freak. It is hard to say whether this is part of malicious propaganda by his innumerable opponents within his party or reflects the actual state of affairs.

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It would be revealing to make a list of Modi’s cabinet colleagues who have neither been heard nor seen in this last year. There are many in key portfolios whose names have not even been registered by the general public or even media professionals. As a test case, I asked nearly 50 well-educated people whether they could name the Minister for Agriculture. Not once could do so. That in itself indicates the kind of negative presence the minister Radha Mohan Singh has established.

Shutting off Access to own Support Base

The most puzzling aspect of Modi’s new persona is the manner in which he shut out key groups and individuals who played a vital role in his bid to become PM. The popular upsurge that led to his grand victory in 2014 in large part was made possible because lakhs of non-BJP volunteers became self-appointed campaigners for Modi and put their heart and soul into combating through social media and word of mouth, the negative profile of Modi built by the mainstream media.

Several groups like Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) Mission 272, and Friends of BJP came into being at the initiative of highly qualified professionals who put their high-flying careers on hold to work to catapult Modi to the PM’s chair. They attracted countless highly committed volunteers—many of them from the corporate world—who gave several months of their time and energy to secure Modi’s victory. No political party in India has ever attracted the kind of talent and razor sharp brains as did Modi during the run up to the May 2014 elections. They more than made up for the lack of BJP’s “intellectual firepower” by taking on with great aplomb the enormous might of the “left secular” intellectuals who till then had successfully painted Modi in a demonic light.

The majority of these people wanted no personal rewards, expected no quid pro quo, simply because they already had high flying careers. Their only motivation was to contribute towards making India a country we could all be proud of. Congress tried hiring some bright brains but they were no match to the zeal and commitment of the brain power that flocked to Modi.

Similarly, Baba Ramdev’s army of volunteers, the highly professional brigade of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living and a host of spiritual gurus with mass followings worked tirelessly to take Modi’s message far and wide, thus making a major contribution to his victory. The rank and file of BJP and RSS workers too were charged with unusual energy to work for Modi even though many of the senior BJP leaders did all they could to thwart his chances.

Even during the election campaign, BJP satraps seemed visibly upset at this new volunteer corps that arose spontaneously. Far from welcoming them within its fold, all manners of hurdles were placed in their functioning. But these volunteers continued with zeal because of their trust in Modi. I had assumed (and even tweeted about it) that Modi would infuse new life into the BJP and also his government by using this entire force creatively.

But after winning the historic election, Modi cut them all off from day one as though he was loathe to admit his debt to them. For instance, though his oath taking ceremony was not the routine affair in Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, his party workers and volunteers of groups like Mission 272 plus CAG, or even key ground level workers of BJP were not given access to the ceremony. He preferred to surround himself with corporate bigwigs, Bollywood starlets, and socialites of various hues.

That sent a very negative message to all those who had worked for him tirelessly at their own cost. Similarly, the likes of Baba Ramdev who had vowed not to return to his ashram till he had assured Modi’s victory were not seen occupying pride of place in that gathering. This came as a real dampener for BJP and RSS cadre as well as various citizens groups that had worked for Modi tirelessly. It would have been far more appropriate for Modi to have organized his swearing-in at Ramlila Maidan (the way Kejriwal did) and allowed lakhs of his supporters to celebrate the victory.

Many of these volunteers expressed their anguish even to a rank outsider like me saying they felt terribly let down by the fact that Modi did not even show the courtesy of acknowledging their role or saying thank you to them. Even though in his first address to BJP MPs Modi talked with great fervour about the sacrifices made by previous generations of Jan Sangh stalwarts and ordinary BJP workers but all the non-BJP teams who worked for him in this election didn’t find even a passing mention. These volunteer groups were wound up without as much as a formal closure and all those who hoped to be part of Modi’s endeavour to build India were left completely rudderless.

Despite its inner-party chaos AAP has established the Delhi Dialogues Commission for institutionalizing regular interaction with its volunteers and ordinary citizens. By contrast, PM Modi and party president Amit Shah have become inaccessible not just to their non-party army of volunteers but also to local leaders of BJP.

(to be continued)

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR, and the founder of human rights organisation, MANUSHI.

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