While sounding triumphant is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s distinctive style of presentation, one wonders why he needed such a massive publicity overdrive, merely on completing two years of an assured five-year term. Naturally, there have been highs and lows but surely the highs are not spectacular enough to justify orchestrated cheerleading? The big assembly elections are still many months away. Whipping the converted into a frenzy of reverence serves little purpose, and those disenchanted are unlikely to get re-enchanted. The “liberals” continue to moan “I told you so” and the “concerned” continue to look grim.
So why all this chest thumping, self-congratulatory frenzy?
First, I suspect the government is nervous. Having raised expectations to a fever pitch, it knows it has not quite been able to deliver. Inspirational slogans, catchy one-liners and fierce personal energy cannot cover the yawning gap between intent and fulfilment. Some slogans, such as “minimum government maximum governance”, have been forgotten or quietly buried.
Quite obviously, the government senses discontent in its middle-class support base but refuses to own up to it. Like all governments who avoid adversarial critiques this government, too, naively concludes that waning enthusiasm is due to a failure in trumpeting its achievements. High decibel publicity is both a means to cover up nervousness and provide the bhakt army with ammunition to counter criticism.
Second, reflect on Modi’s psychology. He seems to find it difficult to function without constant public adulation from mass audiences, needing to wow them with mesmeric oratory and convince them of the “historic” role that destiny requires him to play. Doing it often enough seems to quieten a potentially restive electorate and reinforces his own sense of the greatness.
Third is the classic BJP “good cop/bad cop” act. Each time the toxic RSS agenda seems to gain ground and diminish the PM’s vikas and good governance agenda, he and his ministers have to play the good cop with renewed vigour to maintain balance. Particularly so, because the international image of a modernist messiah who is transforming a plodding, blundering leviathan into a muscle toned, galloping stallion, cannot be allowed to suffer. The big things that are happening under the great helmsman need constant iteration. Meanwhile, the Hindutva pot must be kept bubbling so that whenever the government seems to be forgetting the core Sangh Parivar agenda, the fires can be stoked.
The biggest danger of such PR exercises is that soon the government starts believing its own hype. By welcoming flattery and cultivating sycophancy, it rejects critical scrutiny as being partisan, stops looking at reforming systems, institutions and governance processes. India Inc goes overboard in providing it uncritical approbation and international tycoons seem to be forming a queue to get onto the India bandwagon. Appearance and make-believe become real, while reality withdraws finding itself scorned.
Soon this euphoria will wane. Then I foresee a flurry of senseless activity — a cabinet and bureaucratic reshuffle, followed by an overweening PMO going into an overdrive — holding meetings to remove bottlenecks, chasing approvals, demanding power-point presentations and generally making life hell for those entrusted with implementation: Activities that have little impact on outputs and outcomes.
The pity is that the opportunity for a genuine critical review at this stage could and should have done the following. One, reduce the number of ministries from over 50 to 20 or less. Two, induct 20 strong, experienced cabinet ministers, each capable of exercising independent political authority, to head each of the regrouped ministries; each ministry should be given a clear remit, an adequate budget and a secretary with a secure three-year term. Three, instead of making the PMO into an obtrusive big brother, ministries should be empowered administratively and financially by using smart budgeting tools. Budgets should be linked to committed outcomes and deliverables and then ministries should be held accountable. The focus should be shifted from exercising controls after budgets have been approved to rigorous critical scrutiny before a budget is approved and then devolving and delegating powers in a way that delivering budgeted outcomes is a sacrosanct contractual responsibility. These are simple, tried and tested techniques every good CEO knows about.
Four, walk the talk on federalism and devolution. We almost believed the PM when he got rid of the Planning Commission. But all we got was a bigger share of revenues to the states courtesy the 14th Finance Commission and a non-institution called the Niti Aayog. However, a centralising mindset still dominates and states, local governments and grassroots organisations continue to be treated as agents rather than as partners in a collective, collaborative endeavour. The potential of using a platform like the Inter-State Council for changing all this remains unrealised.
Five, start a process of listening to contrary points of view, be it the responsible and mature dissenters or the media and give legitimacy to two-way interactions. Six, the PM should speak out clearly and forcefully against the bigotry of his partymen, including his own ministers, and use the PM’s prerogative to get rid of the bigoted cultural Neanderthals in his team. Not doing so only confirms that he is actually the fountainhead of such thinking, and also brings out the striking contrast between the PM’s international persona and his domestic one. This contrast is not going unnoticed in the investor community and murmurs now can grow into a roar anytime.
Three years to go. There is still time. Are you listening, prime minister?