4 July 2020 08:25 AM



The Modi Style of Government

An all powerful PMO

Our politics are now at their adversarial worst. We seem to be in a constant electioneering mode. Which means that political rivals work most on trying to define the adversary’s image. Which is what the Congress party is trying to do to Narendra Modi.

With his mother even more retiring now, and with a figurehead as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Rahul Gandhi has now emerged as the defacto leader of the opposition, which is quite a transformation from being the crown prince. Rahul Gandhi seems to have found a second wind and has taken to trenchantly attacking the Prime Minister. This is a no-holds barred personalized style of attack, not very different from the tactics Narendra Modi employed when he was the PM in waiting. So in a way Modi is getting back some of what he dished out.

Typical of this new Rahul Gandhi was the allegations that that the Modi government’s Land Acquisition Act is meant to help his corporate sector friends to grab lands of poor farmers. Given our politics the fairness of such comments is not the issue. He, quite understandably, feels that exaggerations, unsubstantiated allegations and outright lies have worked for Modi and hence will work for him too. But what merits a discussion is his statement: “Wherever the PM sees an institution that is constitutional, that people have faith in, he wants to end it as he wants all power with himself and corporates.”

This is a charge that is not just made by the Congress party’s hereditary leadership, but one that is increasingly heard from the bureaucracy and even from within the BJP. While this has much to do with Modi’s own personality, made larger than life by the highly personalized election campaign, it has as much to do with how the institution of Prime Minister was evolving till Manmohan Singh became the resident of 7 RCR.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s PMO consisted of just a PA and some clerks. But when Lal Bahadur Shastri became the PM the contours of a powerful and influential PMO dominating decision-making in government began to be seen. Shastri had the redoubtable LK Jha, ICS as Secretary to the PM, and soon much power flowed in the direction of this office. It was more due to Laxmi Kant Jha’s own dominant personality. He wore the ICS halo and styled himself as a top rate economist. He just had a Cambridge BA but his bio proudly stated, “studied under Lord Keynes.”

When Indira Gandhi became the PM the flow of power gathered speed and volume and soon the first days of an all-powerful PMO were seen. She appointed PN Haksar, an IFS officer as her Principal Secretary, and soon they had a full Kashmiri Brahmin mafia consisting of PN Dhar, RN Kao and DP Dhar in place. The concentration of power was now total. This PMO also took charge of the department of Personnel, IB and RAW, and such was its pre-eminence that even a steno-typist like RK Dhavan operating from within it and manning the entry to the sanctum sanctorum became all-powerful. She always ensured a rubber stamp as party president.

The power of the PMO diluted a bit with the Janata party government because of the galaxy of powerful political figures in it as ministers. But soon it was back to business as usual with the advent of Rajiv Gandhi who ensured its continued ascendance. This was so till Manmohan Singh became PM. Suddenly there were two centers of power. The one residing at 10 Janpath soon became the more powerful voice in government, mainly due to the natural obsequiousness of Manmohan Singh, who was picked out for high office due to the pliancy he showed on his way up. Power now began to be wielded without the responsibility of institutional leadership.

Now we had a PM who would constantly look over his back lest he become out of step with his political master. We have seen how ministers used to override or ignore his orders. It was not just people like Dayanidhi Maran or A Raja of the DMK but also people like Jairam Ramesh, a political parvenu like the PM with no base of his own except a perceived ‘closeness’ to the ruling family. The nadir of the institutional decline of the PM was when Rahul Gandhi publicly tore the proposed ordinance to negate the Supreme Court’s order on convicted MP’s and MLA’s. Unwilling to issue orders, lest he be second guessed, Manmohan Singh resorted to Groups of Ministers to defer decision-making or possibly even create a trail of complicity or both. This is what is being missed now. The capital’s peddlers of influence and fund collectors loved the GOM’s.

But the Modi PMO is something very different. There is no number two in it. The PM is the number one and the organization is flat after that. Management experts often think of this as the most effective institutional structure to deliver results, as a flat organization will have relatively few layers or just one layer of management. This means that the chain of command from top to bottom is short and the span of control is wide.

The circle of bureaucracy immediately around him consists of self-effacing individuals and few have found easy access to them. Except for Nripendra Mishra, the others have been with Modi since the Gujarat days. The NSA is quite visible, but businessmen and other bureaucrats have no relation with the job he does. Or maybe sone like Anil Ambani do? So it seems to be a Modi show all in all. But this PMO was not this PM’s creation. It evolved that way as the central decision maker. The only difference is that Modi allows very little access to it. Hence the gripes about centralizing all power.

Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi is a directly elected Prime Minister, possibly even more so. Hence he is his own man. He makes decisions and they are his decisions, like demonetization. He wants us to believe that he has no obligations. But that we will know only in the days ahead and when elections loom overhead. When the achche din end, he will realize the benefits of having a multi-tiered or tall organization, the most important of which is that it takes away the burden of making even the most mundane decisions. It allows him to pass the buck downwards to share the blame when the going gets hard. But that means he must also be willing to share the fruits of the mango orchard with many.

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