Our politics are now at their adversarial worst. We seem to be in constant electioneering mode. Which means that political rivals work most on trying to define the adversary’s image. Which is what the Congress is trying to do to Narendra Modi and the BJP to Rahul Gandhi.
With his mother even more retiring now, and with a figurehead as leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Rahul Gandhi is still the de facto leader of the Opposition, quite a transformation from being crown prince. Rahul Gandhi seems to have found a second wind and has taken to trenchantly attacking the Prime Minister. This is a no-holds barred personalised style of attack, not very different from the tactics Mr Modi employed when he was PM-in-waiting. So, in a sense, Mr Modi is getting back some of what he dished out. But is it working another time?
Typical of this new Rahul Gandhi were the allegations that the Modi government’s Land Acquisition Act was to help his corporate friends to grab the land of poor farmers. Given our politics, the fairness of such comments isn’t the issue. He, quite understandably, feels exaggerations, unsubstantiated allegations and outright lies have worked for Mr Modi and hence will work for him too. But what merits a discussion is his statement: “Wherever the PM sees an institution that is constitutional, that people have faith in, he wants to end it as he wants all power with himself and corporates.”
This is a charge that is not just made by the Congress Party’s hereditary leadership, but one that is increasingly heard from the bureaucracy and even from within the BJP. While this has much to do with Mr Modi’s personality, made larger than life by highly-personalised poll campaigns, it has as much to do with how the institution of Prime Minister was evolving till Dr Manmohan Singh became the resident of 7 RCR.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s PMO comprised just a PA and some clerks. But when Lal Bahadur Shastri became PM, the contours of a powerful, influential PMO dominating decision-making in government began to be seen. Shastri had the redoubtable L.K. Jha, ICS, as secretary to the PM, and soon much power flowed in the direction of this office. It was more due to Laxmi Kant Jha’s own dominant personality. He wore the ICS halo and styled himself as a top-rate economist. He just had a Cambridge BA but his bio proudly stated: “Studied under Lord Keynes”.
When Indira Gandhi became PM, the flow of power gathered speed and volume and soon the first days of an all-powerful PMO were seen. She appointed P.N. Haksar, an IFS officer, as her principal secretary, and soon they had a full Kashmiri Brahmin mafia consisting of P.N. Dhar, R.N. Kao and D.P. Dhar in place. The concentration of power was now total. This PMO took charge of the department of personnel, IB and RAW, and such was its pre-eminence that even a steno-typist like R.K. Dhawan operating from within it and manning the entry to the sanctum sanctorum became all-powerful. She always ensured a rubber stamp as party president.
The power of the PMO diluted a bit with the Janata Party government because of the galaxy of powerful political figures in it as ministers. But soon it was back to business as usual with the advent of Rajiv Gandhi, who ensured its continued ascendance. This was so till Dr Manmohan Singh became PM. Suddenly, there were two centres of power. The one at 10 Janpath soon became the more powerful voice in government, mainly due to the natural obsequiousness of Dr Singh, who was picked for high office more due to the pliancy he showed on his way up. Power now began to be wielded without the responsibility of institutional leadership.
Now we had a PM who would have to constantly look over his back lest he become out of step with the political master. We have seen how ministers used to override or ignore his orders.
It was not just people like Dayanidhi Maran or A. Raja of the DMK, but also people like Jairam Ramesh, a political parvenu with no base of his own except a perceived “closeness” to the ruling family. The nadir of the institutional decline of the PM was when Rahul Gandhi publicly tore the proposed ordinance to negate the Supreme Court’s order on convicted MPs and MLAs.
Unwilling to issue orders, lest he be second-guessed, Dr Singh resorted to Groups of Ministers to defer decision-making or possibly even create a trail of complicity, or both. This is what is being missed now. New Delhi’s peddlers of influence and fund collectors loved the GOMs.
But the Modi PMO is very different. There is no number two in it. The PM is number one and the organisation is flat after that. Management experts often think of this as the most effective institutional structure to deliver results, as a flat organisation will have relatively few layers or just one layer of management. This means the chain of command from top to bottom is short and the span of control is wide.
The circle of bureaucracy immediately around him comprise self-effacing individuals and few have easy access to them. Except for Nripendra Misra (now in charge of building the Ayodhya temple), the others have been with Mr Modi since the Gujarat days. The NSA is quite visible, but businessmen and other bureaucrats have no relation with the job he does. Or maybe some like Anil Ambani do? So, it seems to be a Modi show all the way. But this PMO was not this PM’s creation. It evolved that way as the central decision-maker. The only difference is that Mr Modi allows very little access to it. Hence the gripes about centralising all power.
Like Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi is a directly elected Prime Minister, possibly even more so. He is thus his own man. He makes decisions and they are his decisions, like demonetisation, and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. He wants us to believe he has no obligations. But that we will know only in the days ahead, when the next elections loom overhead. Last time it was the super-expensive Rafale. When the “achche din” end, he will realise the benefits of having a multi-tiered or tall organisation, the most important of which is that it takes away the burden of making even the most mundane decisions. It allows him to pass the buck downwards to share the blame when the going gets hard. But that means he must also be willing to share the fruits of the mango orchard with many.
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.