The Great Leader’s Limits Are Now Drowning out His Government’s Strengths

Opposition parties and leaders may or may not be able to cobble together a coherent counter-narrative, but citizens are beginning to take note of the abuse of public confidence and poll promises.

Narendra Modi

The paucity of talent is no longer made up by the prime minister’s rhetorical prowess or his unquestionable dedication to Bharat Mata. Credit:

A reader is unhappy with the prime minister’s remarks at the dedication of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Sunday. The dismayed reader writes a letter to the editor (The Tribune, September 20): “The remark was vitriolic and not in harmony with the celebratory occasion… Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the head of the largest democracy, should forsake the detestable job of a low-level party hatchet man.” For the record, the prime minister had menacingly remarked that he had access to the “kacha-chitta” of all those who were opposed to the dam. News reports also noted that the prime minister pointedly did not mention Nehru, even though it was Nehru who had laid the dam’s foundation stone.

Not long ago, there was a time when such cultivated pettiness would have been music to many ears. No longer. Now, it is beginning to jar. There was a time when the country was in need of a catharsis. May 2014 happened. For a while, very many people found themselves dazzled — especially those who pride themselves on their technocratic detachment — by the sheer political energy, fast-talking, tongue-lashing leadership; the new anti-intellectual strain and invocation of popular nationalism seemed so natural and so very much in order.

A tricked up nation is recovering its breath and its moral certainties. And, the nation no longer feels elevated with such small-mindedness as was witnessed last Sunday. After all, no nation can remain locked in for five years in an abusive moment. For how long can we feel excited about yet another CBI raid on a Karti Chidambaram or an Enforcement Directorate case against a Robert Vadra, or ignore all the evidence of grave damage inflicted by mofussil minds on national economy and national institutions?

Evidence has mounted. The nationwide dislocation of demonetisation; the GST-centric disruption; the marked slowdown in economic growth; the alarming drop in GDP numbers; and, staggering unemployment, all mock at the outsized claims made by limited minds exercising unlimited authority. The unprecedented rise in petrol and diesel prices is justified in a most cavalier manner. All this adds up.

Charisma has not produced either competence or capacity. While it is possible for a leader to infuse a sense of energy and purpose in a confused society, a personality cult has its definite downside. And, that downside is now taking its toll on the nation’s vitality and creativity. We are being asked to close our minds.

Also read: With Prices Rising Post-GST, Has the Government Taken the Public for a Ride?

Worse, we now seem to be in thrall of some kind of crony mofussilism. We are weeding out first-rate minds and talent. An internationally respected Raghuram Rajan is replaced by a pliable regulator at the Reserve Bank of India; as an Arvind Panagariya is made to feel that he was no longer welcome, he is replaced by a very ordinary economist, whose first public statement proclaimed that the days of “foreign-trained” economists were over.

This officially-sanctioned spurning of foreign talent and wisdom is part of a larger, cruder crusade against the so-called Lutyen’s elite. This assault on the Lutyen’s elite is seen as integral to the dismantling of the Nehruvian consensus that has kept this nation united and moving and progressing.

Instead, a tautological argument has been advanced; we are telling ourselves that national greatness has eluded us because we have allowed ourselves to be sucked into “foreign” ideas and arguments; hence, time has come to rediscover and re-install the civilisational essence of ‘bharatiyata‘. The argument is that we are still prisoners of the colonial mind and colonial outlook. The need of the hour is to de-colonialise our minds for a “new resurgent Bharat.” A NITI Aayog member is reported to have formulated, in the presence of the RSS boss, Mohan Bhagwat, this mumbo-jumbo: “India is rising; the country is pulsating; it is overcoming tamas (darkness) and is imbibing rajas (qualitative change).” We are told that we had all the wisdom and knowledge that was to be had; and, all that is needed to become a vishwa guru (world teacher) is to go back to that ancient wisdom. We do not need the Ivy League and its products; our own mofussil universities and their mediocre ‘scholars’ would do. We can burn down the university libraries and no one will miss them. We have our own glorious past.

Also read: Three Years Into Modi’s Regime, the Cracks Are Beginning to Show

This incestuous conceit should surprise no one. Because the media and the intelligentsia have lost their professional courage to tell off the second-rate performers, there is a new arrogance. We will insist that Deen Dayal Upadhyay has all the answers to all our collective failings. Just because they find themselves moved from the cramped quarters in VP House on Rafi Marg to spacious bungalows with manicured lawns on Safdarjung Road, these mofussil minds feel themselves cockily validated. The new sultanate has devised its own darbari culture. Niti Aayog members write opinion pieces in newspapers exalting the BJP president as the new ‘Chanakya’.

What we are witnessing is a closing of our minds. The personality cult has become institutionalised, and the Great Leader’s limits and weaknesses are now drowning out the strengths and assets. The cabinet system of government has suffered in efficacy as it has lost its capacity for collective imagination. The paucity of talent is no longer made up by the prime minister’s rhetorical prowess, his brilliance in abusing political rivals, his humble origin or his unquestionable dedication to Bharat Mata. He dazzled the nation once; no more. A fatigue has set in as undersized performance has not matched the over-exaggerated promises and claims.

Meanwhile, the notion of good governance is being redefined by children’s deaths in Gorakhpur, Farrukhabad, Nasik Civil Hospital; and, the breakdown in Panchkula. What is more, each spectacular failure is sought to be explained away arrogantly: we are a huge country and there will be breakdowns and collapses. The farm sector remains under distress. After grandly promising to double the farmers’ income in five years, the hapless agriculture minister has been asked to disown any central responsibility; instead, the states have been asked to do the needful. Such abuse of public confidence and poll promises. Opposition parties and leaders may or may not be able to cobble together a coherent counter-narrative, the citizens are beginning to take note of the insensitive note, so central to crony mofussilism.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.

  • ashok759

    The economy is the acid test.

  • Anjan Basu

    Intuitively, one cannot but agree with the line of Mr Khare’s reasoning. We seem to be staring at the wilderness today, even as the frenzied chanting of ‘Har Har Modi ..’ goes on all around us. But, isn’t it still a little too early to hope? Where is the resistance on the ground? Well, there is resistance, of course, but who will weld the small little pieces into the hammer that will bring down the edifice of lies, more lies and even more lies? Hasn’t the Indian middle class– the great, ‘enlightened’, ‘urbane’ middle class sold its soul to the devil? Isn’t it the urban middle class that still controls ( and manipulates) the national discourse on everything of any importance? Especially when the poorer masses are dazed and befuddled and bewildered by all the noise, and as their supposed champions, the ‘mainstream’ left, seems to be bereft of all imagination, all energy? I desperately hope I am reading the signals wrong — but that is hoping against hope. — One small issue on which I disagree with Mr Khare is about Aravind Panagariya. Mr Khare seems to think he had better be around. Harsh as it may sound, I have to say ‘good riddance’. He was the archetypal neo-con chipping away at every sane residue in our public policy. He aggressively advocated such utterly regressive policy measures as drug price decontrols and a wholesale privatisation of the healthcare sector. Let us not shed tears for such a man.

    • Sudhansu Mohanty

      My first hunch when Niti Aayog announced its draft policy on healthcare sector was quite the same as yours. After all the Vice Chairman, who de facto heads the Aayog, must take the bouquet or the brickbats for its policy guidelines. But as I went through the draft policies (both on delinking of DPCO from NLEM; and the PPP model in select district hospitals), my understanding changed. Suddenly, it struck me that all Blocks (North & South) & Bhavans (Nirman & Udyog, Krishi & Sastri, Rail & Parivahan, etc) of the Govt of India, these days, look South – including both the two “Southern” heavyweights, looking at the “real” South! Look “South”, go “South” – “South” is the place to go! And if you’ve a clone or two of the “South” amid you – manifesting, even mimicking traits of the original – what chance you had to have your s(w)ay, except to eventually up and leave – for the benign West nest? Not everyone has the courage of his conviction to not look “South” like Raghuram Rajan! There’re no Rajans left now in the Centre, the “Rajanal” cleansing is more or less complete! On NLEM -DPCO issue, where was the voice of Ministry of Health & Family Welfare? They are the ones under whose supervision the NLEM was drawn up by a group of eminent doctors drawn from reputed government Institutes. Where was the Department of Pharmaceuticals whose one of the most important remits is the DPCO? But given that Rajans have been cleaned up (no more an endangered species!) who dare question Aayog’s directives? That explains my giving the benefit of doubt to Arvind Panagariya.

  • Sudhansu Mohanty

    Indeed, a very perceptive article by Harish Khare. In an interesting piece published recently in “The New Yorker”, Evan Osnos refers to an article “on the intersection of health and politics” published in “Brain”, the British medical journal in February, 2009, titled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?” One of the authors was David Owen, former British Foreign Secretary, who too is a physician-neuroscientist. The authors proposed creation of a psychiatric disorder for leaders who exhibited “impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.” We seem to be getting there.

    But to be fair, this trait isn’t confined only to the political elite – it cuts across professions, especially those who are convinced they have been propped up by the former, and know that they can do and say anything and get away with their acts and words. How else do you rustle up a modern-day Chanakya and bruit it around? How else do you explain Arvind Panagariya’s successor (“a very ordinary economist”) to say in his first public statement ‘that the days of “foreign-trained” economists were over’? Again, it’s the same hubris that explains why the government is speaking with a forked tongue on Niti Aayog’s recent Three Year Action Agenda, 2017-18 to 2019-20 on Access to Medicines: “A balanced approach towards regulation is needed for achieving the twin objectives of access to effective medicines and a strong pharmaceutical industry,” so says the Agenda document, and continues, “There is a trade-off between lower prices on the one hand and quality medicine and discovery of breakthrough drugs on the other. It is therefore recommended that the Drug Price Control Order may be delinked from the National List of Essential Medicines.” While the PM and his Ministers speak about mandating generics, the Niti Aayog suggests “a trade-off”!

    Also look at Niti Aayog’s recent proposal to introduce the Private-Public Partnership model in select district hospitals. Some commentators have viewed it as “ill-designed, driven by ideology more than welfare and a strange hybrid that has no precedent anywhere in the world”, calling it “strategic, bizarre or hare-brained”. A 30-year lease for treatment of three diseases — cardiology, cancer and pulmonology with the government as “implementing authority” with all facilitations rolled out including viability gap funding! Niti justifies space to private hospitals in “select district hospitals to private players through a transparent, competitive PPP framework for the treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by harping on failings of our publicly provided health services”, citing Gorakhpur tragedy as a grim reminder. Their justification: rampant absenteeism of doctors — ranging from 28 per cent to 68 per cent in different states. They hearken to World Bank’s finding that doctors in government put in less effort vis-à-vis their private counterparts. They pontificate: Long-term measures to restructure the MCI are on anvil (Who will? Remember Ketan Desai!); and observe that District hospitals will provide basic services for diagnosis and treatment of NCDs “at affordable rates or free of cost for those patients for whom the government chooses to cover” through “insurance or budgetary grants”. The public exchequer will pick up the insurance/reimbursement tab – to fatten the corporate coffers! Healthcare today is smart industry and health tourism is the buzzword.

    Poor patients – no free reserved beds! “The State Government can refer as many patients as it can up to the capacity available in the Project facility.” How on earth is that going to happen with shrinking healthcare budget! In effect, the patients fall back on the PHC – rendered more decrepit before the other PPP-half – for lesser mortals. Two treatment standards, we’re back to square one. Add the draft pharmaceutical policy by the department of pharmaceuticals now in the works, with focus on “controlling” not on “regulating” drug prices – quite in line with the Aayog’s proposal to delink the Drug Price Control Order from the National List of Essential Medicines – and you’ll wonder if World Bank’s and corporate hospitals’ unseen hands aren’t on an overdrive. Sylvia Karpagam in a recent piece in “The Wire” showed the abysmal failure of the PPP model in Rajiv Gandhi Super-Speciality Hospital for tertiary care in Karnataka’s Raichur district and the Karuna Trust for 80 primary healthcare centers across eight States. Intuitively, our Indian healthcare and compassion – a baffling mix of the sublime, the profane and the gratuitous (avarice) – in times of madcap upward material mobility in a consumerist era trumps doctors’ nobility towards patients. Hippocratic Oath is out the window!

    The way to go is to incentivize government doctors “commensurate with existing market conditions” (Aayog’s words, not mine!) and create facilities district hospital like private entities with PPP-pinned funds, rid the chalta-hai attitude, invoke an arm’s length system to transparently and measurably monitor and regulate and hold them accountable, and watch the changes. There is no reason why, in remote district locales, they’ll bite World Bank-Niti’s PPP bait and not the socially-inclined and socially-respectable government’s? With doctor’s commissions for diagnostic tests/procedures de-incentivized, the patients will likely be spared the fleecing. And compassion will likely coalesce with healthcare; doctors will “heal” patients – those God’s children on a worldly visit! But will it happen? Your guess is as good as mine.One thing is sure: there’ll be a lot of hype and hoopla, plenty bluff and bluster – much like on the price of petrol and diesel. And it’ll go on and on…

    Ironically, it isn’t a bad time to remember that like the Greek tragedy, hubris is often followed by nemesis!

    • Anjan Basu

      Grateful for such a detailed exposition of the Niti Ayog’s healthcare misadventure! As for hubris leading to the fall of the Messiah, doubtless it will happen here as it does everywhere else (remember the 1000-year Reich that blew itself into smithereens in 12 years?), but is the Messiah’s time up yet? I hope it is.

      • Sudhansu Mohanty

        I would say, not yet. But it’s building up, gathering some (uncertain) steam and still, limping. We Indians are gullible and very naive, also infinitely patient. But I think the younger generations aren’t so. Yet, you have to scratch the epidermis to see the hypodermis and find out what’s there, and today very few people have the urge or motivation to do so. But soon they’ll be forced, be less gullible, and only then will the real thing come out and pick up traction, and move towards a critical mass. But I guess, given the disparate opposition, the TINA syndrome will likely have the last laugh. We, as a nation, are obsessed with dramatics and histrionics!

        • Anjan Basu

          Yes, the younger generations are less patient than us, thank god, but sadly, they seem to be even more obsessed with dramatics and pure hype, too. Reasonableness in a debate is at a discount everywhere. Why, the very idea of a debate is increasingly becoming anathema at most places and for many more young men and women than you would care to believe. Not that the older generations were any wiser, but perhaps their imagination doesn’t seem to run away with them so often. I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, though.

  • alok asthana

    Right. Well observed. It is Modi’s own pettiness that will cause his downfall. He carries the seeds of his own destruction. It is unfortunate that Congress has become so defunct that they can’t effectively oppose a man who gives so much ammunition for shooting him. So, it is Modi alone who will defeat himself. गब्बर के ताब से सिर्फ एक ही आदमी बचा सकता हैं, और वोह हैं खुद गब्बर. Replace word ‘Gabbar’ with ‘Modi’, and you get the whole message instantly.