Loud but silent: Modi’s actions are opposite to the mythology surrounding him

All indications are, India is fated to deal with another missing prime minister.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: August 7, 2015 10:11 am
Narendra Modi PM Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ideological moorings have often been debated. But his attributes as a leader are also coming under scrutiny. Detractors will say that his leadership was always an illusion, a virtual trick, designed to hoodwink the gullible. Supporters will be immune to any reality check. But Modi’s actions are demonstrating qualities that are opposite to the mythology surrounding him. There may be an alchemy to power, where mirrors show exactly what a leader wants to see, but the chatter outside the hallowed halls captures reality more presciently. Admittedly, the PM had a big challenge. As Machiavelli said, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” But his turning into the opposite of his own self-presentation is striking.

Instead of boldness, we are getting timidity. There is not a single measure this government has taken or a policy it has proposed that can in any way be called bold, which involves the slightest political risk, or displays a measure of conviction. Just to take one example, the UPA did more subsidy reform in its last year than this government has managed to with its mandate. Government is, for the most part, still business as usual, even more so. A bold leader would have understood Machiavelli’s advice: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger but calculating risk and acting decisively.”

Instead of clarity, there is confusion. Look at the narrative of flip-flops on the land bill. The government first jumps without thinking and promulgates an unsustainable and indefensible ordinance, ostensibly under bad advice from the finance ministry that this will be a big-bang reform to energise investors. All it took was one jibe on an infamous suit for the government to decide that it needed to appear to be pro-farmer more than pro-investor. The point is not about the specific merits of the bill or the right balance between investors and farmers. But you get the sense that there is no coherence to the economic narrative; it will swirl with the wind, not giving confidence to anyone.

Instead of implementation, you are getting inaction. This was a PM who staked everything on implementation capabilities. It will be interesting to see how he presents himself on August 15. Just rewind to his promises last August. None of the schemes are on a sustainable implementation pathway. Arm-twisting corporations to spend money to randomly build toilets is hardly an implementation plan for Swachh Bharat. Niti Aayog, the central statement of a new planning philosophy, hardly has the identity or range of capabilities. There is not a single major institutional reform on which there is tangible movement that has surpassed UPA 1.

Instead of confidence, there is insecurity. The most visible internal manifestation is the government’s inability to promote talent. Again, Machiavelli: “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” The quality of people may not be a reflection of intelligence, but it is certainly a reflection of self-confidence. With a couple of exceptions, there are few ministers who bring ideas, passion and command for detail that initiating change requires. It has to be said, with regret, the finance ministry displays more of the casualness of old Lutyens than the passion of a government that is about to initiate change. From within his party, the PM has slim pickings. But at least his IT team could have done a better job of showing that the government knows what the internet is. As Robert Darnton once argued about the French Revolution, exposing yourself to pornography jokes is the surest way to lose credibility. The culture of petty reprimand within government is not about discipline; it is an acknowledgement of its inability to generate enthusiasm.

Instead of political acuteness, there is political obtuseness. Rahul Gandhi may have come back with new vigour. But he has not yet said anything that inspires confidence. And yet, in Parliament, the government has been bullied into submission. The political machine that can do complicated math, divide and rule with millions of voters, cannot handle a few dozen MPs. And there is no strategy — there is no taking the fight to the public, no symbolic gestures that can give the Opposition a face-saver. Even when concessions are given, on the land bill for example, they are not being leveraged to make progress on other things. The only narrative of parliamentary management is victimhood.

Instead of communication, you are getting silence. Communication is not about a string of words, it is about appearing to address core issues. There is no question that the Vyapam scam and conflicts of interest over cricket have stunned the government into silence and inaction. Its foreign policy seems a success because all the hard questions are being postponed.

Instead of aspiration, you are getting a diminution of spirit. A genuine politics of aspiration, instead of a counterfeit, cannot sit easily with a politics of control, distrust and revenge. It cannot sit easily with a political culture marked by anti-intellectualism, pettiness and crudity. The ultimate mark of leadership is not just an odd material achievement; it is the ability to set a tone that lifts the spirit. Whatever the PM may say, he has licensed a culture of politics at odds with aspiration.

India is riding on luck. In global terms, its economy does not look bad. But it is hard to see an economy powered with a banking sector still stuck, a teetering power sector, real estate in disarray, subsidy rationalisation a long way from being real, health and education in crisis. And rural demand, the driver of growth in the last decade, is likely to show only tepid growth. No one expects these problems to be fixed overnight. But the roadmap, implementation capacity, institutional dexterity and political urgency are all absent. Modi is visible in campaign mode; he will doubtless put everything on the line in Bihar. But the PM is missing. This August 15, he would do well not to announce any new scheme. He will be far more credible if he can acknowledge mistakes and take some decisive steps to rectify them. Or India will be fated to deal with another missing PM who may be loud, but is still missing.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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  1. H
    hariharan T
    Dec 5, 2016 at 8:20 am
    The forethought you envisaged as early as an year ago, is really to be taken into calculation, because of the distance Mr. Modi keeps away from our democratic insutions at present and deviations he made following the promises before he became PM. lt;br/gt;The epilogue noted "another missing PM" is sure to happen.lt;br/gt;.The real and very genuine to be pointed out as a historical measure is that of Late Kerala Chief Minister EMS who presented Land bill Act in election manifesto in front of the people and did it. Neither bank nationalization, Privy purse, and Modi's demonetization are not at all a daring step like in Kerala.lt;br/gt;An article, comparing similarity of Modi with Indira hi by some writers, is absurd, in this connection. The impact of modi's move in the economy will be a death blow. Mrs. hi at least placed her name in golden letters by her action though it was a discreet attempt it reflected a good reform.
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    1. S
      sachi saldhana
      Aug 7, 2015 at 2:58 pm
      Time for him to focus on Governance rather than political consolidation.It is a belief that anyone showing disrespect to the family elders will invite a curse.That is what he has done by showing consistent disrespect to Advaniji,MM Joshiji,Yaswant Sinha...etc.They are capable people.See whom he has kept and how they have performed in one year.Smriti Irani.. HRD minister??? There is no one better than her in BJP. Second point is the OROP issue.Please understand,faujis are simple people.Address the issue upfront.Do not treat them as opposition party.
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        binnysingh
        Aug 8, 2015 at 4:54 pm
        Everybody thought this "Prime Minister" was different. He would look into the core issue and work on it. But it's the same old politicians story. The brooms are gone so as the prime minister. These days all we hear about his visits to different countries. And his foot soldiers are involved in all kinds of different scams. And the best part is the way they speak about it. Thank God, nobody can pretend for a long time. Just as they came they will go.
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          Bob
          Aug 7, 2015 at 9:56 am
          Silent but loud ! This author is yet to learn !
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          1. K
            Karma
            Aug 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm
            How many roads, bridges did BJP built.. who brought the credit card, banks, AVIS rental.. this was all during Congress time.. now bjp is quietly putting its governors in states that are not runned by them. Like delhi and now bihar. they are trying to control it. Look closely bJP will loose soon... Congress will come back.. congress built 256 roads.. remember that count. yes they had scams but they did a lot for the country too..
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              Champak
              Aug 13, 2015 at 9:20 am
              This article is full of hot air quoting various well know thinker, without explains why all those quotes are appropriate in this context. Many a times author seems to come close to saying something concrete on specific aspect like land bill etc, but agin shy away from stating what is the failing. My guess is this article is written by somebody on opposintion party payroll who wants to justify his ry.
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                cherans
                Aug 7, 2015 at 6:30 pm
                I agree that he is the India's weakest Prime minister who is afraid of keeping capable and strong people around him. See his ministry for example!!!. His government even can not make proper appointments for government offices!!!...unfortunate
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                  cherans
                  Aug 7, 2015 at 6:16 pm
                  Silent does not mean Modi gets going......Fuse is gone...hard core BJP worker will also loose his cool if things are going like this...
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                    hayatlives
                    Aug 8, 2015 at 11:19 am
                    No black money back No land reforms No major financial reforms No reduction in inflation No action on corrupt CMs No action on the huge Vyapam scam No Lokpal. Nothing tangible. Only gas! Only schemes working were started or envisaged by UPA! Only hindutva linked rss appointments all over. Modi is full of gas. His balloon will soon be punctured
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                      hayatlives
                      Aug 8, 2015 at 11:25 am
                      Poor author should be ready to be trolled and personal insults from modi bhakts. By the way this is what everyone on the street is saying. Kudos for saying the truth.
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                        Hp Manoj
                        Aug 7, 2015 at 11:00 am
                        Election 45months away.. Pls advise against spending so much money now.. Doesn't make financial sense.. Since when journalist become subject matter experts on policy and leadership can you stick to your profession and report stuff please
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                        1. J
                          Jkl
                          Aug 7, 2015 at 11:20 am
                          I see threat
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                          1. K
                            kunhjappan
                            Aug 7, 2015 at 10:00 am
                            This international fraud called Narendra Modi is finally getting totally exposed. This snooper who used to wear Rs. 10L suite has no clothes now. India has to wait another 45 more months to get rid of this pathetic ruler.
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                            1. M
                              Mehul
                              Aug 9, 2015 at 9:18 am
                              It says UPA did more Subsidy reform ! Good that this (Modi)government did away with most as it was crippling the economy. It says Landbill has been a flop , was UPA who did not allow this bill to be tabled . Let's talk about what this govt. did A) jam dhan Yojana B) Bangladesh relationship which gave citizenship to people who had none . C) Lets talk about the action on the militants that killed 18 of our soldiers. D) getting in most of the states together for GST. E) hold on the land bill is still not done away with , they are tabling a bill which will allow the state to have chose what they think is right for their state regarding the Bill . F) check the FDI after Modi becoming PM. G) insurance scheme for the poor . H) Pension scheme for the poor . I) crackdown on Black money , where UPA could not even form an SIT . The list goes on ! The writer seems to be a Congress supporter so cannot help with the views he has .
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                                Niru
                                Aug 8, 2015 at 7:37 am
                                Really such a long winded story. Convoluted sentences. I can imagine why it's written. What are you trying to say. So entangled in your words that the subject is lost!😁
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                                  pk
                                  Aug 7, 2015 at 8:31 am
                                  The author is biased in its writing and it is clear that he knowingly overlooks Consution of India. Modi had two options either to behave like autocratic ruler and disregard all Consutional rights to forcefully implement the land law, GST. The other option was to follow the democratic path of getting confirmation from all stakeholders before proceeding. The same author would have lambasted Modi if the first option was exercised. Modi has some strong vision and he definitely needs good followup action from States to get this actions implemented. The schemes like Jan Dhan, Pension, Swach and housing for all was never thought of from Independence time frame and despite this the author is trying to castigate him is irresponsible journalism. Coming to Vyapam, what should Modi say in that when the case is under investigation with SC, HC and CBI involvement. Why should Modi put forward an opinion which again may not be aligned to author's thinking, instead he is doing the right thing by allowing the consutional authorities to function
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                                  1. S
                                    Saradha Sankar
                                    Aug 7, 2015 at 8:37 am
                                    The author has mixed up ideaism with pragmatism.whatever Quotes he has cited can best be applied to a monarchy or a benevolent dictator our confused democratic set up where individual parties are power driven like the congress it will take a while for changes to become visible.It is easy to learn sth new but to unlearn awrong thing that is in our veins is very difficult.Besides there are multiple challenges facing the Govt. A hostile media which is averse to change in power centres is one such.I would like to ask the author if he has adapted to changes in his organisation with eas.We have seen polticians in this country who would like to erase every available imprint of another leader lest people should adore him. This is what the congress party did with regular consistency.They saw to it that that the nation does not remember anyone other than the Nehru family.But the BJP does not want to do this..Besides even if the bill had been the brain child of UPA ever political party would have given the inputs. The author is living in a Harrypotter world where things happen with a waving of magic wand.It is easy to build a new house but renovating a house which can be renovated with many constrains is a tough call.Does the author mean to say that Only the congress can run the country and others should not?Does he believe in democracy or Con cracy?
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                                      TIHAEwale
                                      Aug 7, 2015 at 4:56 pm
                                      In just one year 56 realised Congress policy of constant engagement with stan is the best when it is clear India cannot go for a direct war with stan or Nuke it out.
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                                        TIHAEwale
                                        Aug 7, 2015 at 5:00 pm
                                        Rohit Patel or any Chamcha of 56 reply to specific of Vijay
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                                          Vijay
                                          Aug 9, 2015 at 2:51 am
                                          Sonia and Rahul are uming that if their drama is able to stall parliament for a w session much as BJP did in order to get a JPC appointed on the 2G scam, the minor impropriety on Sushma Swaraj's part will blow up into a "2G scam" in the public's minds. The Indian public may be illiterate but they are not fools. Using influence/safarish to help friends/family is the DNA of people of India. Everyone does it. However, only the seasoned crooks loot the country as in Bofors, 2G and Coal scam. Congress will drown in its own posturing. Does not need any help from Modi. Modi is an extremely shrewd communicator. He has excellent control over his mouth. His silences are deliberate, Unlike MMS. He will discipline his ministers and bureaucrats privately but will back them publicly, unless they have committed a major transgression. Prathap Bhanu Mehta is drunk on his own erudition and his comments on "missing prime minister" is plain nonsense and he knows it.
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                                          1. Z
                                            Zina
                                            Aug 7, 2015 at 1:14 pm
                                            The author says “””no symbolic gestures that can give the Opposition a face-saver””” --------Why should opposition have a face-saver? Did you even see any of Sonia hi's facial pictures from the past few days? She is always waving her hands maniacally and screaming like in a fish market. You cannot save her face. Sonia hi and Rahul hi are in blackmail mode. It would be stupid to step in front of mad people. Sonia has sent her youth Cons to protest outside the Speaker’s house. That is courting danger.
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