No Time to Lose for Modi to Arrest Slide after Promises

Recall this time last year. The country was in the throes of a general election the electorate instinctively accepted as a game-changer. The nation was agog with the prospects of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi storming the central bastion and transforming the Indian state from a slow-paced elephant into a pouncing tiger.

The story of Modi’s spectacular rise from selling tea on trains to commanding India has in it something of Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. His ascent signalling to the poor, the weak and the youth the importance of working for a better tomorrow by relying on one’s self rather than on the handouts from an abomination of a “mai-baap sarkar”. It represented an ideology of self-help and an antidote to the stale socialism of family outfits masquerading as political parties grown rich by suckling at the teats of a nanny state. It reached absurd levels with Sonia Gandhi during the election campaign declaring Marie Antoinette-like—“We gave you Rights”—as if paper rights confer material benefits or are a substitute for them!

Recall too the worried hubbub within the ranks of the bureaucracy, the so-called permanent secretariat in the government of India. They apprehended a ruthless slashing of the public payroll, elimination of countless government agencies and departments, and introduction of accountability. Modi’s personal rectitude and reputation as hard taskmaster who wrenched good governance out of the Gujarat state apparatus, moreover, sent shivers down the spines of babus everywhere. The Modi hammer was expected to fall on red tape, the slovenly ways of the government, and the unproductive and wasteful public sector. None of this has happened but Modi has shown an unusual appetite for foreign trips.

Perhaps consumed by the pomp and novelty of tours abroad—16 in the last 11 months—Modi sought promises of billions of investment dollars and help for “Make in India” schemes. But neither the dollars nor the schemes have materialised because he hasn’t called a joint session of Parliament to remove unfriendly land acquisition laws or retroactive tax regimes. Modi has also had embarrassing missteps. His initiation of the Rafale combat aircraft deal on government-to-government basis without competitive bidding and genuine technology transfer, for instance, is a throwback to the bad old system of scams, scandals, and corruption that characterised Congress party rule.

Modi could have taken the most radical measures to remake the government, overturn the system, and build anew, but he didn’t. He played safe and has achieved little. Not only has there been no organisational overhaul, but there has also been no evidence of rewriting of the “rules of business” within the government or streamlining of its functioning. The irony is, as one of Modi’s ministers confided to me, instead of imposing himself on the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has imposed itself on Modi, imprinting its views, values, and methods on a prime minister who was expected to show apparatchiks their place. So, it is the taming of Modi by the babus that is at the heart of why things are going wrong.

There are two other factors to explain the slide in Modi’s fortunes. One pertains to the usual outcome of any electoral victory in India—unruly elements within the new ruling dispensation or its support base flexing their muscles, going on a violent binge. In the BJP’s case, the Hindu fringe lit fires of “love jihad”, attacked churches and, the newly elected BJP Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, by banning beef, even legislated what people can eat. It has frazzled the middle class and lowered the PM’s stock, showing up Modi’s powerlessness. If he cannot check indiscipline in his own party, the possibility of his bringing order to the country is remote.

The other factor has to do with the centralisation of power with almost all (presumably major) decisions requiring the prime minister’s approval, according to my ministerial acquaintance. For a PM-centric system to work, however, requires a large Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with an array of specialists mustering comprehensive expertise that Modi can call on to assess the policy choices forwarded by ministries, suggest new options, and to shape his decisions. But Modi is handicapped because while the PMO is numerically large it is not very capable, manned as it is by hordes of civil servants. Besides, the oversight that should be exercised especially over strategic economic and foreign and military policies by the National Security Adviser, according to this insider, is missing because the competence of the present incumbent, Ajit Doval, doesn’t cover more than the intelligence field and his attention doesn’t stray beyond Pakistan.

It is a pity that when Modi had the intellectual wealth of the country to draw upon to engineer more creative policies and programmes, he chose to stick with the babus and the institutional status quo. But this system is of Modi’s contrivance. And its performance in the past year signposts what the country can expect in the future—steady under-performance, legacy programmes dressed in new rhetoric, and shoddy implementation, unless there is radical improvement. In the past year 178 infrastructure projects worth six lakh crore rupees have been cleared with nothing to show for it on the ground.

The insider also cannily observed that Gujarat is not India and managing the show in Gandhinagar is small preparation for running the government of India. In any case, the default position of any PM who finds himself in over his head, he said, is to leave it to the permanent secretariat to do the job. Modi promised much but seems to have lost his nerve for doing big things. The voter has every reason to feel cheated.

This slide can be arrested. Modi has four more years to prove he is not a political shooting star. The PM should remember that the people mandated him to realise his new vision, which the existing civil servant-shackled order cannot translate into imaginative ideas and policies for transformative change. He has so far wasted his political capital in system-tinkering. He can expend what remains of it in reconfiguring the policy-making process by calling in outside experts to intellectually revitalise a government in doldrums. There is no time to lose.
Published in New Indian Express, May 1, 2015 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, society, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to No Time to Lose for Modi to Arrest Slide after Promises

  1. Shaurya says:

    Largely matches my view on things too and a nagging suspicion that I had before the elections too that Modi a CM of a well to do state did not have it in him to make the changes at a national level. He had never shown the grasp of what was needed to be done at the national level. Ability to win elections and ability to govern and undertake radical reforms are two different things. If Modi measures unto Vajpayee’s achievements in this term, I will be happy. So, definitely have lower expectations from him.

  2. AAYUSH's says:

    It is gross underestimation of new PM. Every new PM for initial period of his prime ministership plays by the rules of the present order, it would take time for a first time PM to create his team of expersts, to learn whom to trust and whom not to, to learn how things work at central level. It is still better than previous government full of ex-beaurocrats which new the government functioning too well to change it. I also suspect the abilities of PM in matters other than governance, like controling his party and it’s behaviour. In matter of understanding and utilising government functioning I beleive it is matter of time before he realises how useless people are posing as experts. Also, courage will come only after it’s numbers swell in,Rajya Sabha. So many legislations need consent of both houses, I don’t think it would be wise to call a joint session for land aquisition bill before passing such legislations . It would be a great risk because it can not only permanently antagonise opposition parties but also result in losses in farmer dominated states of bihar and bengal thereby ending any chance of majority in upper house.
    And if we think government run without such political considerations, then we are day dreaming, India is not china and must never be.

  3. Shail says:

    Perhaps building a more competent second and third rung leadership within the BJP could have “releived” some pressure i.e. many major decisions could have been passed through this filter

    • AAYUSH's says:

      That seem impossible as most of the other leaders are not that competent. That’s the problem when a country is ruled by a single party for a long time. Most of the intellectuals get attached to that party and become it’s loyalist and those who don’t become critical of every party on the face of earth. BJP will find it really difficult to induct talent. maybe they should start looking at the states where they have been in power for a long time.

  4. mnas dhar says:

    I think the PM can motivate the nation to move forward but if the people themselves do not wish to then there is very little even Modi can do……I don not understand why people are against his foreign trips or even that printed suit….Agreed it was in bad taste (printed name) but so we prefer our politicians to have hundreds of crores stashed away in tax havens, own real estate in the most expensive and exotic locations and go on vacations for months together with their brazilian girlfriends!!!!!!!! but if they wear a f****n khadi kurta all that’s fine and if a guy who has seen poverty first hand and has risen to the top purely on his own merit..If that guy wears a fancy suit for one day then he suddenly becomes a megalomaniac!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    People who refuse to adapt and change with times…people who keep repeating the same rhetoric of secularism which we have been hearing for 60 years…deserve to be in the pathetic state we find our country to be in

  5. Brigadier V Mahalingam says:

    Excellent article and my Compliments to the author. He has brought out the crux of Modi’s Governance shortcomings. The issues raised by the author is there to see for the entire country and his finger pointing are positive and in the interests of the country. Modi needs to act on it now. Any further delay will very adversely affect his reputation both internally and internationally.

  6. Lt Gen Prakash Katoch. says:

    The fact that Babus continue to hold Defence of India to ransom is pretty clear. Modi’s mantra of ‘Same Babus, Same Filing System’ cannot work in Defence.

    • S.N.Iyer says:

      The role of the MOD in making the policies for the army has been a very old method and despite its failure, the present a govt has done nothing to change the system. George Fernandes tried as a Defence Minister to change the system but did not succeed. Bureaucrats continue to be stumbling blocks for our services.

  7. SuchindranathAiyerS says:

    After a year, there is no change on the ground. India’s reservations-corruption Raj continues to prosper under the grotesque Constitution, Courts and laws of the land. The man who brought in retrospective taxation is the President. Many who voted in favour are now Ministers and it shows in the nature of legislation and governance that is the same old “four legs good two legs bad” all animals are equal but some are more equal than others” totalitarian Animal Farm that has prevailed since 1949 when India was plunged into perpetual civil war and relegated to the medieval Britain of Prince John, Guy of Gisborne, Front de Beouf and the “Merry Men” of Dandakaranya and Madrassas. It is the same India that has been constructed with such care over 65 years to mulct the resources of the state exclusively to the pleasure, pomp, pelf, perpetuation and perversions of the Neta-Babu-Cop-Milard-Crony Kleptocracy from a Constitutional Chaos. It is unlikely that anything will change until: (1) Inequality under law and exceptions to the rule of law are expurgated from the Constitution and laws of India. (2) Bribe Taking is defined as criminal extortion or treason and made a capital offense with special rules of evidence and special courts with summary powers (akin to a Military Court Martial). (3) All court proceedings are video graphed and archived for public viewing and can be used as evidence to prosecute Judges and Magistrates at all levels under special laws and special courts with summary powers akin to a military Court Martial, for insouciance, negligence, tardiness, disregard for law and propriety, behaviour unbecoming of a Judge such as lack of etiquette and manners, (4) every job on the “Public” i.e. Government Pay Roll has specific and unique Key Responsibility Areas, Key Performance Parameters and Objectives for which they are held accountable on pain of summary dismissal for non-performance or life imprisonment for treason for sabotage under special laws and special courts with summary powers akin to a military Court Martial and (5) India creates an Ombudsman Service of reemployed and retrained military officers (Colonel and Below, JCOs and NCOs) who retire before 50 to serve as presiding officers, investigating/prosecuting and enforcement officers at the afore mentioned “Special Courts”, one for every taluk with powers to arrest, incarcerate, try and punish any and all from the President of India to a peon in accordance with the Special Laws framed therefor.

  8. PT Gangadharan says:

    The country needs a revolutionary change in governance which now lies with the Babus. They need a change of mindset.We need professionals taking reigns as against bureaucrats ruling the roost.All Ministries need to induct professionals as in railway Ministry.The Rule of business needs to be amended.Every office holder must be accountable.There is no follow up.All program must be translated into ground which should be visible to a common man.The author has done an excellent work.( Brigadier PT Gangadharan)

  9. Subramaniam Sankaran says:

    For Narendra Modi as CM is like rowing a ferry or playing a Shadhi barat-in Central government he has to Captain a Juggernaut ship or conducting a massive orchestra.

  10. bydyut says:

    Modi saab has been failing us. He must first tame the babus who are ruling the roost. He has failed the defence fraternity with the promise of OROP and that too at the behest of the bureaucrats. I fail to understand why he can’t understand the babus. We had imposed a lot of faith in him but lo the babus haver taken him for a huge ride.

  11. Brig DC Katoch VSM (Retd) says:

    The rut is in the bureaucracy which has been spoilt over the last 60 yrs of misrule,that needs to be addressed,pruned,shaken up and motivated on a time bound program through the PMO & Chief Secy of India in Centre & all State Cadres, as the Political will & direction exists .

    • Niraj Pant says:

      It isn’t fair to make the bureaucracy the whipping boy for everything that goes wrong! The armed force might be having great grievances with them, with some justifications too, but then we can’t come to pass the blame of political executive also on them! It wasn’t the bureaucracy that made tall promises to the people, it is the politicians of the day who did it! Similarly the blame of actions like ‘ban on beef’ or the kind of announcements, more of pronouncements, that have been made by the political leaders of the party, their legislators, and executives too, can’t be passed on the bureaucracy! Even if the bureaucracy tries of procrastinate or place hurdles, it is the person above him, who is expected to keep a check! Leader today, is an undisputed leader in his party and the country too, not like the predecessors of recent past, and more in the shades of Indira Gandhi!

      The leader of the day, must realise that people aren’t going to give him as long a rope to him, as politicians are used to, and people would like to see the results–in tangibles–and soon.

  12. Niraj Pant says:

    Yes, it is true, also said by many of the comments too, that the Govt of the day is losing its sheen for the reasons that its hallmark has been ‘more talk and less action’! The Govt, more so the Prime Minister, carries with him good will and trust of people, but it also must keep in the mind that to earn that he has made very tall promises, and if the people don’t see on the ground 50% of the promises that he has made, and then Amit Shah might come and label all that ‘JUMLA’, people are going to leave him with same haste that they came to him, even if they go back to the people that they have seen in past!

    There needs to be a greater degree of work visible in the country, because Modi might have been able to create a great degree of hoopla through well publicised rallies in US, Aus, and Canada, but same won’t keep happening, and soon will not produce results. The people like to see more of tangibles!

  13. Roshan Yadav says:

    In a large country with India’s diversities governance is really very complex.Miracle was never expected. Let us not yet despair so soon and give more time before final score. Single party rule is a big plus. But so far there appears little change in any field.The ruling party spokes-persons look and sound hypocrates.The ministers are NOT visible except in their inexperience and therefore,the BABUS make ministers dance to their tune. Most of the time the statements made by over enthusiastic politicians and ministers are an embarrassment. The PM needs to exercise restraint and maturity in his statements at home and abroad,though he is a good orator.Media alone can not be used as a potent weapon for long. No doubt very high expectations were set.If the promises were made to be forgotten let it be so!

  14. Sunil Razdan says:

    A well written article by Mr Karnad. At times we try to become too impatient and want every hing to be done yesterday. There is a need for impartial assessment of the first year of BJP governance. I personally feel that on many fronts the govt has done better than the previous one. Relations with our neighbours have improved. Long term policy structure has been well adumberated and some good schemes of public welfare saw light of the day.Even the defence Ministry has started taking speedy decisions.therefore we the people should be more pragmatic and patient rather than blindly criticizing the present govt .

  15. Veteran Wg Cdr Rajeeve Lochan says:

    I feel instead of imposing himself on the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has imposed itself on Modi, imprinting its views, values, and methods on a prime minister who was expected to show apparatchiks their place. So, it is the taming of Modi by the babus that is at the heart of why things are going wrong. There is no progress seen on the ground for a common man. I fully agree with the views of Mr Shourie

    • @Veteran WgCo — Arun Shourie possibly read my New Indian Express piece the morning of May 1, 2015, before going on Karan Thapar’s show on Headlines TV that evening to mouth some of the same ideas in the same sort of way! Or, it may be that great minds think alike!!

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