As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi was known to run a tight ship. He was in total command of his Cabinet, and interacted regularly with senior civil servants. He had some special areas of focus; such as attracting new investment, building better roads, and assuring regular water and power supply to farmers. In these areas, he made a fetish of his accessibility, giving investors his cell number in case they had problems with babus on the ground.
As Prime Minister of India, however, Narendra Modi is not remotely in control of the operations of the Government of India. It is increasingly evident that Ministers are at liberty to act as they wish and say what they want, even if their actions and words are antithetical to the best interests of the Government or the country, or even of the Prime Minister itself. Meanwhile, vacancies in key posts are held up for months on end, only because the Prime Minister has not found the time to see the relevant file and sign off on it.
What explains this discrepancy between how Narendra Modi once operated as Chief Minister and how he now conducts itself as Prime Minister? One obvious explanation has to do with scale. India is not Gujarat. One can, through force of personality, impose oneself on the politics and administration of a medium-sized and culturally homogeneous state. One cannot do that so easily, if at all, on a large country as a whole. The Government of India has many more departments than a State Government; including many departments and institutions that have no parallels in the States.
The transition from Gandhinagar to New Delhi may have been easier if, at some stage in his career, Narendra Modi had worked with the Central Government. Atal Behari Vajpayee was a Cabinet Minister before he became Prime Minister; and he had been an MP for almost two decades before he became a Cabinet Minister. On the other hand Narendra Modi never previously held a Cabinet post in Delhi; indeed, he was never even a Member of Parliament. This must be one reason why Vajpayee managed his Cabinet as well as the Opposition so much better than Modi has (at least so far). Indeed, it seems that at no stage in his preparations for the Prime Minister’s job did Mr Modi pay any attention to a crucial difference between his state and his nation; namely, that while Gujarat has no upper house, India has a Rajya Sabha.
Questions of scale and past political experience (or lack thereof) help explain why Narendra Modi, such a strong and assertive head of Government in Gujarat, has been so curiously ineffective, even at times inept, as Prime Minister in Delhi. But there is a third reason, which may in fact be more consequential than the others. This is that Narendra Modi appears to have had a change of personality. His focus has shifted from closely controlling the administration to closely controlling his own image.
While filing his nomination papers for the Gandhinagar seat for the last General Elections, Lal Krishna Advani famously called Narendra Modi the best event manager he had known. There was an element of sour grapes here, since from managing events promoting Mr Advani, Mr Modi had advanced to managing events promoting himself. To be sure, General Elections had been personalized before. The polls of 1952 were all about Jawaharlal Nehru, the polls of 1971 centred around Indira Gandhi. Yet, because of the use of media forms not available to the likes of Nehru and Indira, in terms of spectacle and reach Narendra Modi’s election campaign of 2014 was surely the greatest promotional event ever seen on Indian soil.
During the campaign, several journalists reported that the Prime Ministerial aspirant began his day by Googling himself—seeing what was being said about him in the English, Hindi, and Gujarati press, and on social media too. Much of this was doubtless comforting to his image. As Chief Minister, Narendra Modi had been a controversial and polarizing figure; for his mishandling of the 2002 riots, and for his vindictiveness towards those residents of Gujarat (including senior officers) who did not toe his line. However, as the campaign for the General Election got underway, Mr Modi began to get a more favourable press—because he was an excellent orator, and because the ruling Congress regime was so massively discredited. And once the contest was posited as Presidential, Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, it was clear who would win.
As the campaign proceeded, Narendra Modi’s confidence grew, and so also his vanity. His speeches were peppered with the personal pronoun; I, me, myself. Later, he added a varation, speaking of himself in the third person, as ‘Modi’, which only added to the conceit.
After he became Prime Minister, Mr Modi’s sense of self was naturally elevated a step further. This was evident in the careful, even obsessive, attention to his clothes, and to his appearance. Then he began to travel overseas. Mr Modi had won an impressive, even spectacular, victory, and heads of Government in countries big and small were keen to welcome him. This made him even more conscious of his importance. Somewhere, he appears to have forgotten the distinction between individual and state, seeing the attention paid to him as due to him personally, rather than to the large and important country whose Government he headed. It was the wilful blurring of this distinction that led both to the wearing of that infamous suit and to the equally ill-judged remark about the alleged personal chemistry between ‘Barack’ and himself.
In his first year in office, Narendra Modi visited some thirty different countries. When he was not overseas, he was not often in Delhi either. He spent a great deal of time campaigning in state elections, these held in Kashmir, Maharashtra, Haryana, and Bihar. The large crowds at his rallies were doubtless nourishing to the ego. However, the large stretches of time spent outside Delhi, whether elsewhere in India or abroad, meant that he was scarcely in touch with his Ministers or his MP’s, who, unchecked, did and spoke as they pleased.
In the time he has been Prime Minister, Mr Modi’s major contribution to governance has been rhetorical. In Gujarat, if reports are to be believed, he took a direct interest in programme implementation. In Delhi, all he does is coin slogan after slogan, these then left to wither on the vine. With great fanfare, the Planning Commission was dismantled and replaced by NITI AAYOG. But what the new institution does or is meant to do is rather unclear. (Notably the NITI AAYOG was not even consulted in the preparation of the Union Budget.) The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched with even greater gusto, yet by the Government’s own admission, the showpiece city of Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s own constituency, is one of the ten dirtiest places in India. Rather than critically evaluate what has happened to the schemes launched so far, the Prime Minister carries on announcing new schemes and new acronymns regardless.
Narendra Modi has much more zest and energy than his predecessor. He also speaks rather more than Dr Manmohan Singh did. His powerful oratory is put in the service of inaugurating conferences and buildings, or giving convocation addresses and election speeches, where, of course, the focus is on himself. But on the burning issues of the day—communal and caste violence, agrarian distress, attacks on public universities—where one would expect the Prime Minister to intervene, he chooses not to speak at all.
In a recent speech in Orissa, Narendra Modi claimed there was a conspiracy to defame him, hatched by those who could not abide a former tea seller becoming Prime Minister. Having read, during the campaign, so much admiration for his speeches, Mr Modi’s scouring of media references to his name was now revealing less flattering results. Since paranoia is the other side of vanity, his first instinct was to see this as motivated. But in fact the criticism is merely a consequence of the mismatch between his campaign promises and what his Government has done so far, and between the slogans and acronymns he coins and the everyday realities of life on the ground.
Narendra Modi’s hold on his Government, and on the process of governance in India, is increasingly shaky and fragile. This is partly on account of scale, partly because of the lack of previous experience in working in Delhi, and partly because of his own obsession with planning and managing events in which he is the sole star.
When he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi did not so relently seek attention. Why does he do so now? I am not a psychiatrist, so I cannot answer the question. I can merely point to its less-than-salutary consequences for the governance of our land.
THE MYSTERIOUS MAKEOVER OF MR MODI
by Ramachandra Guha
(The Telegraph, 20th March 2016)