Though the Narendra Modi government is not even six months old, the media seems to be agog with speculation about his style of functioning. The common refrain seems to be that Modi has concentrated all powers into his hands and the ministers have been reduced to ciphers. The ministers are reluctant to speak; they are not even independent enough to have secretaries of their choice and are under constant surveillance. The prime minister calls the shots on all senior appointments and even senior ministers have been compelled to play second fiddle to the omnipotent de facto chief executive.
In a parliamentary system of government, the Cabinet takes major policy decisions collectively, and as far as the prime minister is concerned, he is regarded as just the first among equals. If reports emanating from varied sources are to be believed, the Union ministers are hesitant to forward the proposals of their departments without ascertaining the mind of Modi lest they would be shot down by the prime minister’s office. Group of Ministers and Empowered Group of Ministers have been abolished to strengthen the position of the prime minister’s office. In a nutshell, the political commentators are lamenting the demise of the Cabinet system of governance with the ascendancy of Modi.
Arguments and counter-arguments will keep unfolding from time to time, but in our overzealous bid to train our guns on Modi, let us not gloss over certain developments that have occurred not only in India but in other democracies the world over, including the United Kingdom, hailed as the mother of all democracies.
Over a course of time, many democracies of the world have witnessed the gradual strengthening of the position of the prime minister in relation to his council of ministers to such an extent that some political commentators are not averse to describing the council of ministers as the prime minister’s Cabinet. The prime ministers of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty enjoyed unparalleled power in their Cabinets and so do certain chief ministers such as Mamata Banerjee or Naveen Patnaik in their respective states. Margaret Thatcher was described as the only man in her all-male UK Cabinet.
Coming back to the prime minister’s office, this extra-constitutional body assumes the structure that is commensurate with the leadership style of the prime minister. It is not for the first time in India that the prime minister’s office has outgrown the Cabinet secretariat. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had powerful prime minister’s offices for secretarial assistance and policy inputs.
It is not the first time that the Cabinet secretary is feeling threatened by the role played by the principal secretary to the prime minister. Today’s mode of governance is undergoing a drastic transformation and the increasingly assertive empowered citizenry is more inclined to see results rather than the style of their leader.
Don’t forget that for a major part of his stint as Gujarat chief minister, Modi displayed a CEO-like trait of being a hard taskmaster. With the onset of entrepreneurial government, the CEO style seems to be more effective in the setting up, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of targets assigned to different ministries with the increasing quantification of government work. And then, Modi proudly acknowledges: “Commerce is in my blood.”
Critics feel that Modi is running a one-man show and even senior leaders such as LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have been relegated to the outer edges of the party organisation with the anointment of Amit Shah, his ‘man Friday’, as the BJP president. There may be some truth in what is being said but then, there is no gainsaying the fact that Advani — the eternal yatri of Indian politics — and Joshi — widely believed to be the architect of the saffronisation of education during the previous NDA rule — are well past their sell-by date.
The best chance for Advani to have a shot at the prime minister’s post was in 2009. Once he failed to enthuse the electorate or the cadre, the writing was clear on the wall and it signalled his fading into political oblivion.
The party old guard must understand that at a time when 65 percent of the population is below 35 years of age, the country can’t afford to entrust policymaking into old hands who are out of sync with the aspirations of a young nation. The cut-off age for the ministers at 75 years is on the higher side and more and more youthful faces should have been inducted to reduce the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.
Was this unprecedented electoral victory of the BJP a result of the individual charisma of Modi or was it made possible by the failure of the Congress-led UPA? Was the electorate enamoured by the programmes/policies of the BJP or was it a culmination of sheer Modi magic?
There can’t be any easy answers. The Opposition is not willing to buy the theory of the Modi wave and so is the RSS. Even some senior BJP leaders are attributing the glorious BJP victory to its policies, cadre and the failings of the erstwhile regime. But, from a dispassionate point of view, I would place my bet on the Modi factor.
The recent General Election saw the entire campaign strategy of the BJP putting Modi in the pivotal position and canvassing for him in the presidential mode. Don’t forget the fact that Modi addressed more than 450 rallies. Wherever Modi went, a massive anticipating crowd followed him and seemed to believe what he said. He was the officially declared prime ministerial candidate of the party and the RSS’ own former pracharak.
Had Advani succeeded in his design of preventing the announcement of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate before the polls, I am sure the results would have been different.
Some opposition leaders opine that the outcome of the bypoll results in certain states after the Lok Sabha election busted the myth of the Modi wave, but are they correct? These bypolls were not expected to alter the contours of any state government, and moreover, Modi and his central team kept away from the campaigns.
In the Assembly elections held in Maharashtra and Haryana, the BJP did not project anybody as the chief ministerial candidate, but despite this, it emerged as the largest party in both states.
For the BJP, Haryana was virgin territory, while it was always the B team of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Modi campaigned aggressively, throwing the ‘Marathi Manoos’ plank of the regional parties out of gear in Maharashtra. The situation in Haryana was not any different with the BJP in a position to form the government on its own. Can anyone dare to take credit away from Modi?
The fear of Modi has become all-pervasive. In Bihar, the JD(U) and the RJD buried their differences to come together for their political survival. Don’t be surprised if in the near future you find the BSP’s Mayawati and the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav reading from the same page. Even in states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where the BJP has minimal presence, undercurrents are discernible. The fact that the entire Opposition in some states is ready to make strange bedfellows, throwing all mutual bitterness to the winds, is a testimony to the centrality of Modi in the national political discourse.
The General Election witnessed Modi facing the Opposition onslaught from all sides. Perhaps, in independent India, there is hardly any leader who had polarised elections to such a magnitude. Whether it was his personal or political life, the Opposition leaders did not leave any stone unturned to discredit him. Apart from Modi and the communal-secular debate, there were no issues. He was the fulcrum around whom the biggest election in the world moved its course.
According to Bhimrao Ambedkar, hero worship or the cult phenomenon has an adverse impact on the working of any democracy. Democracy should revolve around issues rather than personalities. Ram Manohar Lohia was greatly perturbed at the growing cult of Jawaharlal Nehru and regarded this as anathema to democracy.
Despite the reservations of Ambedkar and Lohia about cult worship and personal charisma-based polity, these happenings are not rare. The Congress relied too much on the charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to reap electoral dividends. Today, the charisma of the dynasty may be on the decline but take Sonia and Rahul out of the Congress scheme of things and the party will simply disintegrate. Strong personalities provide the glue around which the entire party apparatus sticks. Why only the Congress? Can you imagine the BSP without Mayawati or the SP without Mulayam? Can you discount Lalu from the RJD or even dare to think that Nitish is dispensable for the JD(U)? Leaders such as Mamata and Jayalalithaa have acquired statures that are bigger than their parties.
There have been a plethora of dynasties worldwide that captured the imagination of the people based on their charisma. The Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Kennedy and the Bush dynasties of the US, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and a host of others rode their electoral fortunes by the sheer force of their personalities and enjoyed unquestioned authority within their parties. The fact is that Modi is not an exception. While many of the leaders mentioned above owed their charisma to their dynasty and pedigree, Modi acquired it by sheer hard work.
Personalities do define the tide of history at times and people do accept it. The imagery of the leader occupies the public mind more than the party or the issues that define it. Modi has created hope in a populace that was fed up with corruption and policy paralysis under the UPA government. When the NDA came to power in 1999, it was the sheer charisma of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that roped in the allies not in congruence with the saffron ideology.
Democracy needs charismatic leaders. It was the Modi wave that decimated the Opposition, not the policies and ideology of the BJP. It is time to give due credit to Modi rather than contemplating to belittle him by raising question marks over his style of functioning or adopting an ostrich-like approach in not accepting the Modi wave.
It was Modi vs the rest, an exact replica of the 1970s era when politics came to be defined by a discourse on Indira Gandhi. Everybody was preoccupied with her. One could either love her or hate her, but nobody could ignore her.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)