At a book launch function in Delhi I had once remarked that in the Mahabharata, among the hundred Kaurava brothers most of us remember only two names: Duryodhana and Dushasana. The rest did not matter. My hint was clearly understood by the audience, which responded with a huge applause.
Modi is the kind of man who wants to do everything himself and who is obsessed with creating history every day. If he can become the first Indian prime minister to visit Timbuktu he would do so whether it is necessary and impactful or not. There is one thing he has done which no prime minister has done before – he has taken most of the existing government programmes and renamed them, so that the credit and glory accumulate to him.
Modi has centralized all decision-making powers in the Government of India in himself, assisted by a few chosen officers in his PMO. However, he is known to be more interested in PowerPoint presentations than in reading voluminous files. This is a pity. It means that he does not grasp the nuances that are stored in institutional memory. Perhaps it suits a man whose intellectual training lacks rigour at best (indeed, no one has seen his higher education degree in ‘entire political science’).
In the Government of India, administration is driven by three centres: one, the prime minister and his PMO; two, the finance minister and his ministry; and three, the Planning Commission. A politician used to head the Planning Commission earlier, but now it has been silenced and replaced by the NITI Aayog, where Modi has placed people who have zero influence on governance.
That leaves only two drivers of government. Everyone knows how the finance minister’s influence in government has declined to almost zero and he is unable to push things even in his own ministry. After all, while his finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia was involved in the infamous demonetization exercise, the finance minister himself was in the dark. The finance secretary’s proximity to the prime minister goes back to their days together in Gujarat. Everyone familiar with the functioning of the finance ministry is aware that independent political leadership of that ministry is absolutely essential to get things moving in the government.
Modi is unfortunately a man who is impatient with institutions. His faith in himself blinds him to the fact that he is not a king, that he is only the head of a parliamentary party with a majority that enabled it to form a government, and which is prescribed with limits by the Constitution that has inbuilt checks and balances.
For instance, the government allowed the 2018 budget to be passed by Parliament without a discussion. This is unprecedented. Parliament represents all of India – and by not giving the MPs a chance to discuss the budget proposals, a large chunk of India was deprived of expressing its view. On top of that, Modi went on a farcical day-long fast on 13 April 2018 – after Parliament went into recess. He said it was to protest the washout of the first part of the budget session, which he blamed on the Congress party. But he was wrong: if he was genuinely interested in Parliament’s functioning, he would have held discussions with leaders of the Opposition to take care of their concerns and enlist their cooperation in the functioning of Parliament instead of fasting after the session was over. It was nothing more than one-upmanship.
The Cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament. But as an institution it has been turned into a rubber stamp for the prime minister’s decisions. It is said that most Cabinet ministers are not allowed to speak unless an item of their ministry is up for a decision. Modi stands on a different plane from the ministers, and he has no time for them, because they don’t matter. Only he does, and he will rule through bureaucrats – this appears to be his mantra.
The November 2016 demonetization of high-value currency, for instance, was revealed to the Cabinet only minutes before it was announced to the nation – at no stage was it discussed with the collective political brains trust of the government. Perhaps a wider discussion would have made it more effective in achieving any of the goals that Modi set for it again and again during that surreal winter.
Another big decision which took the concerned minister by surprise was the BJP’s withdrawal of support to the People’s Democratic Party in June 2018, with whom it was in a coalition government in the sensitive, strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir. It was a decision taken by Modi and Shah alone. The home minister, who historically has been so important that he has also been deputy prime minister, had just days earlier visited Jammu and Kashmir energetically with a peace initiative in mind. As soon as he heard the decision – like everyone else, as it was breaking – he scampered off home, unwilling to face his bureaucrats or the media.
The most cavalier treatment of a line minister is that of Sushma Swaraj, our external affairs minister, who was the leader of the Opposition in the last Lok Sabha. She is trolled by lunatics on social media, and Modi goes on to congratulate some of those trolls for their activity on the Internet on his behalf. She is not only kept out of important policy decisions, she does not even travel abroad with her prime minister. This is in stark contrast to Vajpayee; after I became the external affairs minister in 2002, there was not a single foreign trip that he did not ask me to accompany him on. But in this regime there has not been a single occasion where the prime minister has asked his external affairs minister to accompany him on a foreign trip. His constant companion on these trips is the national security adviser. The prime minister did not take his defence minister into confidence while deciding on buying thirty-six Rafale fighter planes from France. Vajpayee would never have done such a thing. But then it is my mistake to compare Modi to Vajpayee.
Excerpted from India Unmade: How The Modi Government Broke The Economy, co-authored by Yashwant Sinha and Aditya Sinha, published by Juggernaut Books.