Is there something wrong with Narendra Modi becoming the first among unequals?

‘I have the power.’
‘I have the power.’
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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Our politics are now at their adversarial worst. We seem to be in constant electioneering mode, which means that political rivals focus on trying to define the adversary’s image. Which is what the Congress party is trying to do to prime minister Narendra Modi.

With his mother not taking as active a role as before, and with a figurehead as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Rahul Gandhi has now emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition, which is quite a transformation from being the crown prince. After his 56-day break from the heat and dust, and hurly burly of competitive politics, Gandhi seems to have found a second wind and has taken to trenchantly attacking Modi. This is a no-holds-barred personalised style of attack, not very different from the tactics Modi employed when he was the prime minister in waiting. So in a way, Modi is getting back some of what he dished out.

Typical of this new Gandhi, is the allegation that the Modi government’s land acquisition Act is meant to help its corporate sector friends grab poor farmers’ land. Given the nature of our politics, the fairness of such comments is not the issue. Gandhi, quite understandably, seems to feel that since exaggerations, unsubstantiated allegations and outright lies have worked for Modi, they will work for him, too. But what merits discussion is his statement below:

“Wherever the PM sees an institution that is constitutional, that people have faith in, he wants to end it as he wants all power with himself and corporates.”

This is a charge that is not just made by the Congress party’s hereditary leadership, but one that is being increasingly heard from the bureaucracy, and even from within the Bharatiya Janata Party. While this has much to do with Modi’s own personality, made larger than life by the highly personalised election campaign, it has as much to do with how the institution of prime minister was evolving till Manmohan Singh came to occupy 7 Race Course Road.

The institution of prime minister

The prime minister’s office (PMO) under Jawaharlal Nehru consisted of just a personal assistant and some clerks. But the contours of a powerful and influential PMO dominating decision-making in government began to be seen when Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister. Shastri had the redoubtable Lakshmi Kant Jha of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) as secretary to the prime minister, and soon much power flowed in the direction of this office. It was more due to Jha’s own dominant personality. He wore the ICS halo and was thought of being a top rate economist. He had a bachelor of arts degree from Cambridge, but his biography proudly stated, “Studied under Lord Keynes.”

Indira Gandhi reads her oath of office as India’s prime minister in 1966.
Image: AP Photo

When Indira Gandhi became the prime minister, the flow of power gathered speed and volume, and soon the first days of an all-powerful PMO were all too visible. She appointed P.N. Haksar, an Indian foreign service officer as her principal secretary, and soon they had a full Kashmiri Brahmin mafia consisting of P.N. Dhar, R.N. Kao and D.P. Dhar in place. The concentration of power was now total. This PMO also took charge of the department of Personnel, Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing. Such was its pre-eminence that even a steno-typist like R.K. Dhawan, operating from within it, and manning the entry to the sanctum sanctorum, became all-powerful. Indira Gandhi always ensured a rubber stamp as party president.

The power of the PMO diluted a bit with the Janata Party government because of the galaxy of powerful political figures in it as ministers. But soon it was back to business as usual with the advent of Rajiv Gandhi who ensured the PMO’s continued ascendance. This was so till Singh became the prime minister. Suddenly there were two centres of power. The one residing at 10 Janpath soon became the more powerful voice in government, mainly due to the natural obsequiousness of Singh, who was picked out for high office due to the pliancy he showed on his way up. Power now began to be wielded without the responsibility of institutional leadership.

Now we had a prime minister who would constantly look over his back lest he become out of step with his political master. We have seen how ministers used to override or ignore his orders. It was not just people like Dayanidhi Maran or A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, but also people like Jairam Ramesh, who did not think much of a political parvenu like the prime minister with no base of his own except a perceived ‘closeness’ to the ruling family.

Manmohan Singh
Image: Reuters/Harish Tyagi

The nadir of the institutional decline of the prime minister was when Rahul Gandhi publicly tore the proposed ordinance to negate the Supreme Court’s order on convicted members of parliament and legislative assemblies. Unwilling to issue orders, lest he be over-ruled, Singh resorted to groups of ministers to defer decision-making, or possibly even create a trail of complicity, or both. This is what is being missed now. The capital’s peddlers of influence and fund collectors loved the groups of ministers.

No number two

But the Modi PMO is something very different. There is no number two in it. The prime minister is the number one and the organisation is flat after that. Management experts often think of this as the most effective institutional structure to deliver results, as a flat organisation will have relatively few layers or just one layer of management. This means that the chain of command from top to bottom is short and the span of control is wide.

The circle of bureaucracy immediately around him consists of self-effacing individuals and few have found easy access to them. Except for Nripendra Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, others in the PMO have been with Modi since his Gujarat days. The national security adviser is quite visible, but businessmen and other bureaucrats have no relation with the job he does. So it seems to be a Modi show, all in all. But this PMO was not this prime minister’s creation. It evolved that way as the central decision maker. The only difference is that Modi allows very little access to it. Hence, the gripes about centralising all power.

Like Indira Gandhi, Modi is a directly elected prime minister, possibly even more so. Hence, he is his own man. He makes decisions and they are his decisions. He wants us to believe that he has no obligations. But that we will know only in the days ahead and when elections loom overhead. When the achche din end, he will realise the benefits of having a multi-tiered or tall organisation, the most important of which is that it takes away the burden of making even the most mundane decisions, and allows passing the buck downwards to share the blame when the going gets hard. But that means he must also be willing to share the fruits of the orchard with many.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.