When he became Prime Minister, Jawaharl-al Nehru famously said that his aspiration for India was to build “a just society by just means”.
When he became Prime Minister, Jawaharl-al Nehru famously said that his aspiration for India was to build “a just society by just means”. That may seem a straightforward enough hope, but for Pandit Nehru, a thinking man with a sense of the currents of history, there was a recognition of the magnitude of the task. Just societies have not always been built by just means.
The French Revolution led to the overthrow of a monarch alienated from popular sentiment — but also to the reign of terror. America is a fair and open society, but the process of expansion of freedom for all its children has taken some 200 years. The spirit of 1776 was celebrated by propertied white males from a certain geography. It took years, decades and centuries for others — from women to people of colour — to get their place under the proud sky of a just society.
As such, commonsensical as the connection may seem, the process of achieving a just society and of using just instruments to do so can hold inherent contradictions — as history so often teaches us. Indeed, human advance is often a testimony to both the clash and confluence of such contradictions.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes two years in office, he too has grappled with a philosophical contradiction. It is not a contradiction to this or the other policy choice, or sectoral concern. It is more fundamental, and linked to how the polity and the Indian Republic are organised. His job is to rebuild an authoritative prime ministry in a time of unprecedented federative impulses. How can he re-establish the ideational clarity and, if one be permitted the word, the majesty of the Union government, while simultaneously acknowledging the rights and ambitions of state governments in terms of greater devolution and transfer of funds and autonomy of policy design
In India, and specially in government, people sometimes forget the principled positions taken in their previous jobs, and simply wear the cloak of the new job. It is not strange for ministers and civil servants in Department X to take a particular stand, and on their transfer to Department Y to take the completely opposite stand. Some of this is opportunistic. Some of it is simply lazy surrender to the prevailing consensus, which remains untouched by any fresh thinking on the part of the new incumbent. Of course, some of it could be the product of greater information reshaping existing views.
In the case of Mr Modi, he has sought to fill the gaps that had come into the prime ministry in recent years — in the UPA period, but frankly over a far longer timeframe, going back to the late 1980s — and make the leader of the government that much more effective. Decision-making, policy audits, the court of last appeal, the arbiter of political and departmental factionalism and jostling: rather than palm this off to some convenient contrivance — scores of groups of ministers or a bargain shop called a coordination committee — the Prime Minister’s Office has embraced this responsibility with passion and energy.
It is important to note that this is a corrective measure and not an aggrandisement. It is a restoration of coherence, after the prolonged aberration of a loose alliance arrangement where the Prime Minister had little choice in even his ministers and their portfolios, let alone advance information on who was being appointed as a minister’s private secretary or his ministry’s secretary.
Interpreted in such a manner, this is a nod to the modern prime ministerial form of government. It is far from a one-person dictatorship, as Mr Modi’s critics have often charged. That latter phenomenon was last seen in India in the 1970s, under Indira Gandhi. It has not come back in that form, and hopefully never will.
Yet, while such was a self-assessment of Mr Modi’s terms of reference when he took charge from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — and was based on where his predecessor had gone wrong, or in many cases been deliberately sabotaged by the predecessor’s party — it was very different from the experiences and instincts he brought to New Delhi as a chief minister and a man from the provinces.
As a political manager, Mr Modi has had to juggle and do justice to these seemingly paradoxical constructs: of an authoritative leadership to a focused Union government; and of a Union government that unilaterally retreats from territories where it is not needed and yields to state administrations and to the federalist impulses in the polity. The acceptance, without hesitation, of the Finance Commission’s report, the granting of greater mining revenue (from coal and other resources, going beyond what the courts had ruled) to state governments, the recast of the Niti Aayog as a consultative think tank which the states could choose to use, rather than be forced to listen to, are all part of this federalist push.
To be sure, neither task is complete. Both are works in progress. The search for a judicious balance between a strong PMO and over-bearing PMO is a constant one. The dangers of a Central authority becoming the core of an overcentralised system is always there. There have been ups and downs and learnings in the past two years. In the federalist project too, the sweet spot and the precise value that the Niti Aayog will bring — or even the political cost of resorting to Article 356, as the Uttarakhand experience showed — is still a question the answer to which is being formulated.
Even so, few can seriously interrogate Mr Modi’s honesty of purpose: to build a federalist polity while retaining a Central authoritativeness. In that he may already be writing his legacy.
The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org