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Is the Modi power vertical the dominant force in government?

Authority is concentrated in the cult of his personality

Published: Aug 20, 2014 07:49:48 AM IST
Updated: Aug 12, 2014 06:04:41 PM IST
Is the Modi power vertical the dominant force in government?
Image: Sameer Pawar
Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior journalist (well-regarded for confl ict reportage) and former editor of The Hindu. He is currently Senior Fellow, Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, at Delhi’s Shiv Nadar University. He is also visiting faculty at the University of California, Berkeley

Eight weeks into its tenure and the basic contours of the Modi sarkar are already apparent. Not since Rajiv Gandhi’s December 1984 victory has India seen a government with the kind of institutional and political authority that Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys. And not since Indira Gandhi has so much power been concentrated in the hands of one individual. Of course, Indira was ‘Left’ and Modi is ‘Right’ and while the intervening years have seen the centre of gravity of Indian politics move steadily rightwards, it is worth asking what policy changes are likely now that the ‘Hindu Right’ has been propelled to absolute power for the first time in its 89-year history.

If Manmohan Singh ran a government with multiple power centres that was so weak it was unable to overcome dissonance within and challenges without, Modi’s establishment is one in which central executive authority is not only supreme but fully concentrated around himself and the cult of his personality. The Modi power vertical—distant, opaque and centripetal—has quickly asserted itself as the dominant force in the Indian system, serving notice to all pillars of the state, the Cabinet system, Parliament, the Judiciary, and autonomous institutions as well as non-state entities like the media and NGOs, that it will not be restrained or intimidated by their influence or oversight.

The signaling began right from day one, when Modi issued an ordinance deleting a key provision in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) Act that was an obstacle to the hiring of Nripendra Misra as his principal secretary. In order to ensure the independence of telecom regulators when Trai was being set up, the erstwhile National Democratic Alliance regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made it illegal for the government to give them post-retirement sinecures. By scrapping this provision, Modi was doing more than accommodating an individual candidate. He was sending a subliminal message to all present and future telecom, oil and other regulators: If you are willing to give up your statutory independence and bend the rules for us, we will find a way to reward you even if this means bending the rules just for you.

Soon after the swearing-in of his ministers came a flurry of directives from the PM to his lean and somewhat underwhelming team. These highlighted the subordinate status of the Cabinet, and were a throwback to the Indira Gandhi era when secretaries were encouraged to bypass their ministers and deal directly with the PM. A recent report reveals the fact that Modi never goes to Cabinet meetings on time. The spin given is that “this is so that his ministers can first discuss pending proposals with implications for more than one ministry”. But if the track record of the relationship he had with other ministers as chief minister of Gujarat is anything to go by, this could also mean the main decisions have already been taken by his office outside of Cabinet. The Cabinet still bears collective responsibility for all decisions the Modi sarkar takes, but does not necessarily get to deliberate on them.

This unitary institutional culture is on display elsewhere, too. The BJP’s refusal to grant the Congress the formal status of an Opposition party in the Lok Sabha is no doubt a reflection of the actual balance of forces in Parliament, but it also tells us the PM has little time for concessions and gestures, let alone meaningful debate with political opponents within the House. At the same time, the leak of an Intelligence Bureau report questioning the motives and patriotism of non-governmental organisations and social movements signals the lack of tolerance of extra-Parliamentary opposition as well.

When it comes to the media, too, Modi continues to see objective, professional journalism as a problem; not only is his own communication largely restricted to tweets but he has encouraged his ministers to keep their distance from reporters. On their part, media organisations worried about rubbing the PM the wrong way are choosing to pull their punches on certain kinds of stories.

Is the Modi power vertical the dominant force in government?
Image: Getty Images
PM Modi with Cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Nitin Gadkari at the swearing-in of the NDA government. A recent report says Modi never attends Cabinet meetings on time

The autonomy of universities—another critical arena for debate and deliberation—was also breached in the Modi government’s initial weeks in power. First, the Ministry of Human Resource Development leaned on the University Grants Commission to reverse its stand on the controversial Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) started by Delhi University with its approval barely a year ago. Then it got the UGC to issue a diktat to DU colleges that the FYUP be scrapped failing which their funding would be stopped. With the country’s most prestigious university unable to protect its autonomy, the stage is set for other politically-motivated pedagogic intrusions across all higher education establishments.

The next and most important class of institutions to be put on notice is the judiciary. The first salvo fired was implicit: In defiance of a Supreme Court ruling whose origins, ironically, lay in a petition moved by BJP leaders themselves, the new government sought to sack several UPA-appointed governors on political grounds alone. Having secured the resignations of these governors in this manner, Modi then went ahead and appointed Sangh Parivar apparatchiks in their place. More ominous, of course, was the unprecedented manner in which the government vetoed the Supreme Court Collegium’s recommendation to make the eminent lawyer, Gopal Subramanium, a judge. That incident provided the clearest indicator yet that the PM feels threatened by an independent higher judiciary. This is not just because of the cases he and his colleagues face stemming from allegations of wrongdoing in Gujarat, but because the Supreme Court has the ability to call the government out on a range of policy implementation issues, especially on the environment front.

Economy heads right
Many of those who backed Modi during the campaign were hoping for a sharp and immediate acceleration rightward on economic policy but this has not happened in the way they had hoped.

As PM, Modi is conscious of the expectations he aroused during the election—10 million new jobs, an end to high inflation—and knows he has to balance the demands of the masses who voted for him with the demands of the corporate sector that paid for his campaign. That is why the social welfare projects of the UPA period—the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the National Food Security Act—have been retained despite calls for them to be reined in for the sake of the fiscal deficit. Truth to tell, his own social welfare promises on sanitation and health and his grandiose urban and infrastructure projects have not been well funded in his first Budget, but then he has not tried to cut other subsidies either.

What Modi has done, however, is to take the big business-oriented impulses already present in UPA’s approach to the economy and give them a boost. Thus, FDI limits in defence and insurance have been raised (this, despite the role played by some of the biggest American insurance companies in triggering the 2008 financial crisis), and public-private partnerships (PPPs) are being pushed in sectors like the railways. Finance minister Arun Jaitley also plans to accelerate the disinvestment of public sector shares as a way of raising revenue without increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Reliance has not had its way on gas pricing yet because the BJP knows it is likely to be a political hot potato but the Adani group, another key backer of Modi, secured the environmental clearance it had been seeking for a massive SEZ around Mundra port in Gujarat. The environment ministry has also made small but significant ‘below-the-political-radar’ changes in its norms and procedures for the protection of both forests and wildlife that environmentalists feel are designed to facilitate easier approvals for industrial and mining projects in ecologically sensitive areas. The rural development ministry is also considering amendments to the new Land Acquisition Act that will help scale back the price industry must pay farmers to buy up their property.

The BJP has started a debate on the politically sensitive issue of labour reforms with party-ruled states such as Rajasthan making it easier for factories to lay off workers. Trade unions argue that since contract labour—the freedom to ‘hire and fire’—is already so prevalent across all sectors, changes to the Industrial Disputes Act of the kind industry wants will merely be used to push the wages of workers down and will not create more jobs. Going down this route is risky and the Modi government is unlikely to rush in.

Is the Modi power vertical the dominant force in government?
Image: Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Modi met Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif a day after taking oath

Foreign policy continuity
On the foreign policy front, Prime Minister Modi has broadly stuck to the diplomatic shoreline drawn by the previous government but has, commendably, been far more energetic in engaging India’s South Asian neighbours than Manmohan Singh had ever been. His meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the day after his inauguration took both Right and Left by surprise but was widely appreciated. Now, the two foreign secretaries will meet to see how the stalled dialogue process can be taken forward. Modi made Bhutan his first foreign destination as prime minister and will soon pay an official visit to Nepal.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has visited Dhaka and Modi may follow too this year; the emphasis on Bangladesh is important for economic and strategic reasons but also because Modi’s election campaign rhetoric in West Bengal and Assam unfairly painted one of India’s most important neighbours as some sort of enemy.

Given the BJP’s ‘rightist’ outlook on China, there was an expectation in some quarters that Modi would be receptive to Japanese and American ideas of closer trilateral co-operation as a hedge against the growth of Chinese military and economic power. Certainly the Shinzo Abe government sees India as a partner against China but it is clear that Modi does not want to be put into a position where New Delhi has to choose between Tokyo and Beijing. Indeed, the PM sees both Asian powers as crucial for India’s economic prospects. Similarly, he is not keen to take sides in the growing confrontation between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine. Modi also wholeheartedly embraced BRICS, a grouping that many right-wing backers of the BJP have been dismissive about.

Nowhere is the clash between continuity and the BJP’s rightist political impulses more evident than in the stand the Modi government has taken on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The government was wary of a discussion on the subject in Parliament for fear of offending Israel and, in keeping with the UPA government’s own modified approach since 2012, the statement the Ministry of External Affairs issued was careful not to single out Tel Aviv. But Modi signed up to a critical paragraph on Israel in the BRICS declaration and voted in favour of an even more hard-hitting UN statement against Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law, much to the consternation of Hindutva activists.

The real test of Modi’s foreign policy credentials will come if and when there is another major attack on India from Pakistan-based terrorists, or a major incident or provocation along the boundary with either Pakistan or China. His government is banking on engagement and the tough, decisive image it has in order to forestall any adventurism by the two neighbours. But Islamabad and Beijing have been unpredictable and even irrational in the past; Modi’s challenge will be to defuse any crisis through diplomatic means and resist the temptation to engage in the kind of sabre-rattling that the Sangh Parivar would favour and that the Opposition too would opportunistically demand.

Social fabric under strain
Even as it pursues a ‘growth at any cost’ economic strategy as a priority, the Modi government will also work on promoting the Sangh Parivar’s wider right-wing social agenda. There is already evidence of this happening in the field of education. From Kerala to Karnataka and Punjab, there have also been incidents of BJP and Sangh Parivar cadres—often with police backing—disrupting cultural events or filing frivolous cases against those who are critical of Modi and his government.
The fact that Kerala and Karnataka are not BJP-ruled states tells us something alarming about the outlook of our law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, Sangh Parivar activists who actually incite hatred are not being proceeded against. The fragility of our social fabric in the face of communal provocation is the Achilles’ Heel of the Modi sarkar. If unchecked, the prosperity India’s voters were promised will unravel faster than one can say “acchhe din”.

(This story appears in the 22 August, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Young Indian

    Millions of young Indians like me who wish to see a prosperous developed India within next 20 years cannot trust CONgress and its SICKular parties that has ruled India for last 65 years for taking care of India and its interests. We will take our chance with Modi in whom we see a tiny chance of India regaining its past glory of leading the world with peace, prosperity and spirituality. Modi is the solution to the chaotic and uninspiring Indian politics. I only wish that the current Indian youth get inspired by the Modiji\'s patriotism, and do their best in whatever they are doing. Ek Bharat, Shresht Bharat. Regards, Young Indian

    on Aug 22, 2014
  • Tshering

    Thank you for the article. Puts a lot of issues into perspective on the domestic and foreign policy front.... Was very comprehensive... Would really like to hear your views about the independence speech. Some of us found it inspiring but we are also wary about the PM\'s antecedents. After reading this article...I must add that I and the like of me..might have to temper our enthusiasm.

    on Aug 21, 2014
  • Kamesh

    I think Mr. Vardarajan has even forgotten the basics of journalism which is the harder you try to shield your biases with twisted facts the more apparent it becomes. In this piece, Mr Vardarajan has simply put in words the way in which masses should perceive Mr.Modi in his fantasy world. He has used lots of extrapolation to give the interpretations he has given in this article to the decisions taken by Mr. Modi. Basically, the problem with the group of journalists, to which Mr.Vardarajan belongs, is that they have lost the importance and stature they used to enjoy during UPA regimes because of sudden rise in legitimacy of govt., as an institution, in the eyes of common man, with BJP coming to power with such huge mandate. During UPA rule, govt. as an institution suffered a great loss of legitimacy in masses because of its own misrule. This vacuum was aptly grabbed by media, journalists and social activists. But after election results, everything has reversed to the days of 1950s and 60s where govt. was the most legitimate and powerful institution. So now, these journalists are trying hard as they can again gain back the same legitimacy by maligning the nascent govt.

    on Aug 21, 2014
  • Anant

    Stop being so much biased and ill conceived, your affiliations are well known since the days of Hindu.

    on Aug 20, 2014
  • Bs Murthy

    So you have a problem with Sangh Parivar apparatchiks as Governors but not with Sonia's sycophantic characters; for you Gopal Subramanium and Raju Ramachandran et al who share your allergy to Modi are eminent and so on, but still claim that you are objective in your intent. You may know that you are abusing your journalistic freedom to make a case against Modi's intentions to abuse his political power and position. Okay, you can carry on as there are takers, which barring the prejudiced won't convert any.

    on Aug 20, 2014
  • Indiafirst

    Nicely analyzed article. But very little time has elapsed since the new govt took over. lets give it some time to articulate its orientation. No doubt the legacy points towards centralized mechanism of governance, yet we can\'t completely overlook the inbuilt strengths of the parliamentary democracy.

    on Aug 20, 2014
  • At

    Nice spin. I know you're too clever to be ignorant. I can go line by line and expose your lies in this article. But I am going to follow the new PM's lead and ignore you. If we stop to pay attention to every barking ***, we will never reach our destination. We shall see how India turns out 10 years from now. Until then, you can keep making fools of your friends in Berkeley.

    on Aug 20, 2014
  • Gsc

    Another ignorant article. Let me start by saying. There are three branches of government: 1) Executive 2) Parliament 3) Judiciary 4) Media - 4th Estate, so to speak. Anyone with slightest familiarity with India or Indian constitution would know that a Prime Minister can\'t afford to be an autocrat. The Indian democratic system isn\'t set-up for that. But, ignorance is bliss for writers in the Western press, some are ignorant others write to propagate existing ignoreance.

    on Aug 20, 2014
  • Mazo

    Typically condescending drivel from the so-called "intellectual elite" that for decades stalked the halls of power in New Delhi and now see themselves thrown out on the street where they actually belong all along. It must be jarring to see somebody from so humble a background succeed so stunningly and operate so efficiently and dynamically that the presumption of "authoritarian"/"communal" etc. (code words for fascism or autocracy) find plenty of space in this screed. Apparently the heartburn doesn't only extend to style but extends to the policies some these very self-appointed "civil society" types penned for decades but lacked the fortitude and might to push through parliament 2013 like the Judicial Appointments Bill or the report on the NGOs that bedeviled the Manmohan Singh Government or indeed the summary dismissal of governors! Yet, we see an intellectually lazy attempt here to peddle a "holier-than-thou" screed trying and failing (true to form) to get away with fooling the gullible and the ignorant. Of course one can expect little better from ideologues who have been so thoroughly rejected by the Indian citizenry that they are still reeling from their own political, philosophical and intellectual bankruptcies.

    on Aug 20, 2014