KAL, the ascerbic cartoonist for the Economist weekly lauded for its perceptive take on current leaders, developments and issues, in a year-ender, created a satirical aviary of political birds (reproduced above). Among the fowls of varied provenance, he identifies, the centrally featured, “Jingo-headed zealot Modi Hindi Dominatus”!
KAL’s take on Narendra Modi — while not flattering — suggests the Indian Prime Minister is registering on the international public consciousness. No small achievement this in an age of instant sensations and celebrities when the premium is on being noticed, even if with alarm, than to be not noticed at all.
Scanning the Indian political horizon, there seems no rival in vaulting distance of Modi, who has taken a firm hold of the people’s imagination in a way that only Jawaharlal Nehru did in the Fifties but for very different reasons. While Nehru effortlessly projected the image of a patrician-aristocrat who had found his calling as a leader of the masses, Modi, just as easily, conveys the message to them that as one of them, he has risen through dint of hard work and with a bit of luck that often attends on political success, to now be at the helm of affairs in the country, with no danger from family and hordes of hangers-on to besmirch his reputation and pull him down. Indeed, the death of PM’s mother living with another son of hers some 700 miles from New Delhi evidenced just how scrupulous Modi has been in distancing his family from his post. It has given him a peerless reputation that no other Indian leader can ever hope to match.
Into his eighth year in office, it is his aura of incorruptibility that, more than any other factor, is his political strength and strongest selling point. It has settled Modi in the hearts of the electorate, winning him and his Bharatiya Janata Party their unstinting support. He provides hope for a people who have for too long experienced the Indian government as a system of spoils where the winner bends the rules for personal gain and his local minions and party bigwigs milk the teats of expenditure on public works, social welfare programmes, and almost all capital acquisition schemes of the government, especially in high value areas of defence, industry, and telecommunications. The severance of service recently of several senior officials in the Telecom Ministry, including a Joint Secretary — which level of officers in all ministries and departments/agencies constitute the executive arm of government, suggests just how deep rooted the rot is.
The scale of corruption reached an apogee during Manmohan Singh’s tenure — a trend the PM would do nothing to stop because as a front for Sonia Gandhi (sporting the halo of one who had renounced the kingly crown when it was first offered her in 2008, but happy to work the remote control) couldn’t, as the “Congressiyas” at all levels, long accustomed to raiding the public till under party and government cover, did just that.
Modi, in this respect, has run an exemplary regime with almost no hint of personal financial malfeasance from any quarter. Because Modi’s PMO rides herd on all large expenditure programmes and contracts in all ministries, it has left little or no scope for the minor and major officials in the procurement loops to make whooppee in the manner they were used to doing. Far from doing away with corruption, however, the officials determined on having the channel of under-table earnings stay intact, have learned to tradeoff the higher risk of exposure and punishment with demands for bigger payoffs. Hence, the paradox of corruption at the Joint Secretary secretary-level on up being down even as the volume of commissions, bribes, and other illegal gratification has increased (or, so say the bribe givers of the foreign and Indian corporate worlds required to do business with the Indian government)! The computerisation and digitalising of government business and other reforms, notwithstanding, the discretionary power of civilian officials/unifomed officers, particularly in the acquisitions loops, has been retained. This means this power, traditionally used for harrassment and weighting choices, remains the preferred means of extorting bribes in money and kind from foreign and in-country vendors, original equipment manufacturers, and anyone seeking government custom. Alas, this is how the machinery of government functions and is kept lubricated even in the Modi era.
Until Modi quite literally tears down the extant apparatus of government and rebuilds it as a much smaller, more effective, version of its previous self minus the impedimenta of laws and rules of business from British times, India will limp along — the system prodding “the best and the brightest” among the youth to seek avenues of self-betterment abroad, even as Asia to the east of us gallops along with China into modernity and a happy future. Such radical makeover of the government is unfortunately not what Modi, a statist and hierarchy-minded leader, has in mind to do. He believes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the system as-is will deliver with a bit of exhortaion from him here, a bit of tinkering by him there. It is a delusion, I concluded in my 2018 book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, the PM will persist with to the country’s detriment. This is a pity because, having captured the people’s heart and mind, he is in a position to do, as only Nehru before him was capable of doing — completely alter the government and the way its works. Instead, he seems content with doing little in that respect.
But, none of this will harm his political prospects. Not little because the BJP cadre, mostly affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), provides the party with a socio-cultural anchor that resonates with the traditional ways of thinking in the majoritarian Hindu society. It is hard, moreover, not to be impressed by RSS’ norms of high ideals, clean living, and its nationalist ideology, which can be faulted in its details, not in its basic thrust. Even more impressive is the fact that members of the RSS and, by extension, the BJP, actually live by these norms. As a high office-holder in RSS, Modi reflects the discipline of mind and of behaviour the organization inculcates in its followers. There is nevertheless dynasticism in his close circle of advisers and in BJP. But it is kept in tight check. His National Security Adviser Ajit Doval sought parliamentary seats for his sons from Uttarakhand but they were denied party tickets to fight elections. The PM’s confidante and Home Minister Amit Shah, likewise, was dissuaded from getting his son into politics in Gujarat. Jay Shah chose to head the state’s cricket board, a position he parlayed into running the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
Historically, corruption has been the hallmark of all governments everywhere. Chanakya devoted many sections of his 3rd Century BC codicil, Arthshastra, to keeping tabs particularly on revenue collectors whom he did not trust to do right by the State. He recommended measures, including active intelligence, to police their activity. Mindful of the native proclivity to bribe giving and taking, and considering it indigenous to native systems of rule (Mughal and previous), the British expressly designed their system of colonial government to minimize it by restricting the role of Indians in government in purchases and service delivery, by installing financial advisers and the like for oversight at every turn. However well or ill it worked pre-1947, in independent India that system of government quickly turned into a bureaucratic nightmare — a viscousy mess of conflicting laws, rules and regulations that can delay decisions and implementation of decisions and ensure that what is implemented is not done well, leave alone wisely, with ambiguous file notings and paper-pushing as the default option for babus to fall back on.
So, the PM in his 2014 campaign talked of “Getting government out of business”, of creating a milieu where punitive rules are dispensed with and Indian entrepreneurs enouraged to be wealth producers and job-givers, to prosper in new tech and to generate, in the bargain, employment for the masses of aspiring youth, even as a helpful government with underway skilling programmes provides the necessary labour to drive industry. Eight years on, the government remains the main obstacle to the country’s rapid advancement in the economic sphere and on the atmnirbharta front in defence. Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman is still talking of investing in youth and in upskilling them, much as Modi did 8 years ago! For all his rousing rhetoric, the PM is surprisingly unwilling to rely on private industry as the vehicle for the country’s economic rise, and has been busy streamlining the dowdy, lossmaking, public sector enterprises rather than privatizing them. If his talk of reducing the footprint of government is just that — talk, where’s progress?
But a slate of unfulfilled promises will apparently not matter all that much when the general elections roll around in 2024. In fact, Modi’s re-election is now almost a certainty. His record of personal probity and upright behaviour is his ticket to victory, and will remain so as long as he contests elections. In comparison, there is Rahul Gandhi — the dynast flagbearer of the Congress party who, in a more congenial setting, would only need to nod his head for him to have the crown placed on it. In one way or another, the Congress party has shrunk into a cabal of fawning and calculating Gandhi family acolytes. So when Rahul G refers to the need for the opposition to come together and to propagate a rival ideology to compete with and defeat Modi, the question to ask is whether he is serious!
Consider how alive he is to the current reality and the social forces Modi has let loose. His “Bharat jodo” yatra may have earned Rahul a modicum of respect he didn’t earlier command. After all a man who “walks” the length of the country, albeit half of it in the airconditioned comfort of his travelling van, deserves some admiration. But then he got two things spectacularly wrong. First, the optics. Over the duration of the yatra, he sprouted a full greying beard and his looks, as a consequence, began acquiring a certain gravitas. He seemed by the time he entered the northern states to look more mature, more seasoned, less a “pappu”, which was good. But then the imagery got spoiled when he had his ex-scrap dealer of a brother-in-law, Robert Vadra, striding alongside him, reminding everybody that voting for Rahul and Congress meant possibly enabling the tainted Gandhis to return to feasting on the economic entrails of the nation. Who wants a return to that past?
More importantly, what is the ideology Rahul G hopes will upset Modi’s apple cart, come 2024? He hasn’t articulated any. But it is unlikely to be other than a return to the patronage socialism pushed by a strong central government — Indira Gandhi’s oeuvre. A revisiting of that economic disaster has to be avoided at all cost, because it will mean a return to having the public sector as the engine of economic recovery and rise, and we know how that went the last time. It realized, what became known derisively the world over as, “the Hindu rate of growth” of 2%-3% annually. Should Rahul skip to Manmohanomics the prospects would not be much better, because that’d involve tethering the Indian economy to that of the US. This’d be a recipe for India’s formally accepting a secondary power status tied to a receding power. Rahul’s and the Congress party’s vilification of the private sector leads to precisely these endpoints if their rule materializes. This is, in one sense, an ironic development because the Congress party boasts of more genuinely fecund intellects — Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh, to name two, than the BJP. Were they to be instructed by the party to rethink the Indian system of government and the role of the private sector in national life, they’d no doubt come up with a host of good ideas. But because Congress is wedded to some strain of socialism or the other, and Rahul has no bright ideas of his own to suggest as guideline, Messrs Jairam, Tharoor and Co. wallow in dated economic notions they believe will resonate with the Gandhi Family’s interests.
There’s, however, a Modi weakness that the opposition is in no position to exploit — his partiality to “crony capitalism”. Modi’s vulnerability is obvious, but Rahul’s line of political attack — “suited booted sarkar” won’t work, as the 2018 elections proved. That is because the masses too, it turns out, want to be suited and booted as Modi is in his “rags to riches” avatar as Prime Minister. It is an aspiration Modi long ago worked into the message he pitched to the public when subliminally shaping its expectations of his government in Gujarat and later at the Centre, namely, that there won’t be doles/freebies or “revadi” but there will be government assistance for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is another matter that despite his trying, the government hasn’t become more amenable to servicing people’s aspirations. So, when Govind Adani, with a straight face, claimed in a recent TV interview to India Today, that his proximity to Modi had nothing whatsoever to do with his rocketing rise from smalltime trader to multibillionaire tycoon, but implied that the Gujarati identity he shared with the PM may have led some people to reach that conclusion, it highlighted his implicit belief that whatever part proximity to Modi may have played, his success owes more to his own ambition, business acumen, and propensity to take risks that have fetched him big rewards. And who can dispute such a reading?
Modi is set to dominate the Indian and South Asian scene and, perhaps, to feature prominently in international politics in the years to come because an honest politician — however ruthlessly he may practise politics on home turf, is a rarity as most leading politicians and heads of government in the world at-large (barring the Scandinavian countries and, perhaps, Japan) are variants of Donald Trump in their venality.