Modi chooses efficiency over politics

Subir Roy | Updated on January 10, 2018


The latest Cabinet rejig illustrates that the PM is going ahead with his development agenda, cherrypicking efficient lieutenants

With the latest changes in the council of ministers, PM Modi has reaffirmed his role as a leader in a hurry to get things done, not get bogged down by having to engage in the give-and-take of traditional politics. He sees himself as the vote-getter with a direct connect to the people who leaves it to BJP president Amit Shah to do the arithmetic of balancing traditional constituencies.

Performers have been rewarded by promotion to Cabinet rank even though they are political lightweights and non-performers axed. Several retired civil servants, hardly veterans in politics, have been inducted in a bid to bring in efficiency in delivery as a run-up to the parliamentary elections due in less than two years.

Rewarding performer

The leitmotif of all the changes is elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman to an exalted status by giving her as critical a portfolio as defence. Like the former civil servants, she is a political lightweight who can be expected to keep her nose to the ground and work away with administrative efficiency and not seeking to become a political power centre in her own right.

She, as also the new entrants, come via the Rajya Sabha, strengthening the picture of efficiency winning over traditional political standing derived from a mass base. The representation from the Rajya Sabha among minister is likely to get further skewed when two new ministers who are not MPs become so most likely via the Rajya Sabha. The ultimate putdown for traditional politics is the disdain with which allies of the ruling NDA, like the Shiv Sena and the newly arrived JD(U), have been ignored and passed over.

Critically, the latest ministerial changes point to how Modi’s role is evolving vis-à-vis the RSS. Along with putting the BJP with its traditional politics in a corner, Modi has also shown that he is less dependent on the RSS. The new ex-civil servant ministers have little to do with the RSS. One political observer said, “I doubt Modi needs the RSS too much. It’s true they provide ground level cadre, but that’s about it. Modi seems least bothered about history textbooks or beef. He wants power and roads and better cities.” He adds, importantly, “I think he (Modi) has had a deal with (Mohan) Bhagwat.”

While there is substance in this view, it may be an exaggeration to say that the RSS also has been confined to a well-defined space. Relations between Modi and the RSS have evolved over time, going through a lot of ups and downs during his chief-ministership of Gujarat. More recently, the Hindu consolidation and legwork that the RSS cadre put in for the victory of the BJP in UP indicates that to have the political mandate to deliver on development, Modi needs the RSS, though maybe less and less over time.

What we have here is a Prime Minister who is strong on being able to act decisively. Not only that, with his confidence in being able to deliver (ride to victory) almost single handedly, he has shown that he can take risks, the most notable being demonetisation, in order to get ahead on a plan and agenda.

What history says

This is not the first time that a leader has downgraded the regular structure of the party while getting ahead with the job of ruling. Indira Gandhi broke away from the traditional Congress, eventually imposing the Emergency and then through it did pretty much what she pleased, turning the part into a bunch of sycophants. Rajiv Gandhi was intensively development agenda driven. Remember his various technology missions and the role of whiz kid Sam Pitroda. Rajiv famously shouted at Andhra leader T Anjaiah at an airport before a crowd. Both Indira and Rajiv are considered to have paid a price for losing grassroot contacts with the grassroots. This happened partly because of the absence of a feedback loop from the party.

In the various policy initiatives that Modi has taken, at least one, demonetisation, has had an unintended consequence: the hardships it had caused at the grassroot level. It is a moot point if consultations with both experts and the party before rushing in would have helped skirt around the adverse aspects.

It cannot be known now whether the departure of non-performing ministers and the induction of former civil service members will bring in a period of better administration and delivery. If that happens, well and good for Modi. It is also possible that Modi may have to pay a price for disconnect with the grassroots while pursuing efficiency.

At the end of the day democracies deliver something invaluable to both the rulers and the opposition — a link with the grassroots achieved through the structured network of large political parties. Traditional politics is a nuisance charismatic leaders need to tolerate for their own good.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on September 15, 2017

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