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Random Reflections

Two months is too little time for any Government to roll its five year plan, its vision, resolve and reflections into implementation mode. The BJP came back to power after a gap of 10 years and the heap of debri  left over by the UPA regime has been too huge to clear.

 

Prime Minister Modi too had no earlier experience of national politics as he has been the Chief Minister of Gujarat for over 12 years.  Heading a national government and understanding its nuisances is not an easy job as many new areas need a deep understanding of so many complex issues. Not only defence and foreign policy but there are a dozen odd other equally important areas where a new government has to clearly underscore its priorities, weigh its pros and cons and then set its foot forward.

It is here that Prime Minister Modi’s silence and selective quips and quotes have started making people a bit cagey, uneasy and even surprised. Those who have seen Mr Modi thundering in public rallies and taking pot-shots with his own brand of adjectives and superlatives are rather dismayed at his silence. Their balloon of expectations went up so high with Modi after the LS poll verdict that the BJP is finding it extremely difficult to even bring it to a respectable level. Chinks have started showing in Modi’s armour and with social media already having gone in offensive mode, there is every likelihood of shit hitting the ceiling  earlier than expected.

Modi has maintained a stoic silence like Manmohan Singh on most issues since last 3 weeks which is quite intriguing. No one heard him saying a word on the BJP debacle in Uttarakhand bye elections!!

In fact, a section of bureaucracy has already started smelling some rat behind this and a few senior bureaucrats have also started indicating that Modi seems to be taking order from somewhere else as Manmohan Singh used to do under UPA-II. Either he has been under the close lens of RSS or he has already become a hostage of his core team of wheeler-dealers/ advisors.

PMO: One of the notable changes see in the present regime is that PM Modi has restored the primacy of PMO which keeps an eagle eye on actions of all ministers and senior bureaucrats on a daily basis.. Interestingly, the same people who had decried its emasculation under Manmohan Singh are now saying that   Mr Modi has emasculated his ministers and their Ministries.

The common complaint in Delhi media circles is that Modi government has become too PMO-centric to the extent that even law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was given his private secretary after a gap of two months.  Home Minister Rajnath Singh had to eat a humble pie while trying to force his way to have a private secretary of his choice.

 Secondly, during UPA II regime, many Ministers became a law unto themselves and they did not mind embarrassing their own government through their idiotic quotes on a few issues. The situation came to such a pass that the UPA government became forced to follow a policy of someone from either the government of Congress party saying something atrocious everyday so that the attention of the TV and media would be diverted from a plethora of scam that was engineered during UPA regime with alarming regularity.

The PMO in Modi regime has not allowed that to happen till now. It could be seen in the light of the fact that Ministers and ruling party MPs have been deliberately keeping their interactions with the media to the minimum. Policy statements, ministerial action or political opinion are either narrowly channelled or tightly controlled. Many Ministers are learning to practice how to put out carefully orchestrated stories into media.

The most interesting examples were surprise checks by MIB Javadekar and urban development Minister Venkaiah Naidu early morning and order to mark them absent for half day for late coming.

The fact remains that Modi has remained a hard task master even as Chief Minister of Gujarat and here, also he has been routinely interrupting or ticking off his ministers whenever he thinks, they are warranted.  At the same time, it is also true that individual or dissenting opinions are frowned upon in his regime and the same is the case with media interactions unless they are TRP winning exploits.

 It is also interesting to note that Prime Minister Modi has not yet appointed his full-fledged Media Advisor to brief the press on a regular basis.  His erstwhile PRO from Gujarat days, Mr Jagdish Khattar is seen doing the chores even today.

The same is seen in the absence of a Foreign Policy Advisor. Perhaps the new government has not yet been able to understand and analyse that foreign policy in the present era is a hugely specialized task and it needs a battery of experienced hands from the diplomatic corp to understand the nuisance of diplomacy and diplomatic bargains and manoeuvres on ticklish issues.

Foreign Policy

Prime Minister raised a few eyebrows when he did not take his External Affairs Minister Ms Sushma Swaraj to Brazil for the BRICS summit. Not only that demonstrated administrative naivety but also the zeal of the Indian PM to copy  his predecessor whose used his MEA more as a rubber stamp than otherwise.

The Prime Minister appears to be depending too much on his national Security Advisor and former IB Chief  Ajit Dobhal. No one questions the credentials and credibility of the NSA in any way. Yet the fact remains that Mr Dobhal as NSA cannot take all the burden of foreign policy as well as diplomacy in the present multi-polar world becomes an altogether different ball game and required the collective efforts and wisdom of specialized people. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had the advantage of having people like PN Haksar, HY Sharada Prasad and even diplomats like K Natwar Singh and G Parthasarathy apart from PC Alexander.  Prime Minister Modi’s team would take some more time to understand the intricacies  of running PMO and  India’s foreign policy  directives in the best  and the most efficient and pragmatic way.

Calling all SAARC leaders at his swearing in ceremony may have been coup de tat for the new Indian Prime minister but then irritants between India and Pakistan and India and Sri Lanka continue to pop up regularly.  One hopes, he would achieve some significant breakthrough on a few vexing bilateral issues with his present visit to Nepal.

Apprehensions were also raised on India voting against Israel over the Gaza fighting thereby putting its multi-faceted relationship into knots. However, the fact remains that Indian still depends on oil supply from a few West Asian countries apart from a substantial amount of remittances from Indian expatriates working in those countries.  Israel has no oil and India can always make up for those machines and  technical support from European countries.

Economic reforms

Many political pundits were expecting PM Modi to turn the UPA policy upside down within a matter of weeks. But that has been easier said than done. They were expecting the repeat of 1991-like scenario and far more hard measures on curtailing fiscal deficit, controlling inflation and ushering in zero subsidy regimes.

The fact remains that Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s budget was more like the old wine in a new bottle. There were a few notable changes, tweaking and tittering here and there but precious little beyond that.

In fact, there were a few disappoints: 1) One was expecting FM to bring about some changes in the subsidy regime but he failed to do that. 2) Proliferation of Rs 100 crores down payment for a bewildering variety of new government projects and programmes. 3) The extensive tinkering with customs and excise rates. 4)    The enormous faith of Modi government in PPP (Public private partnership) despite their track record of widespread problems in contracting and execution timeline. 5) A fresh transgression of retrospective taxation for existing unit holders of debt mutual fund, most of whom are probably individuals and not corporate. 6)   Little scope for the govt to restore fiscal discipline and inflation. 7) The government’s business friendly approach and attitude too can be harmful in the long run. It makes a strong case for re-examining free trade agreements.

Trade Policy

Modi’s critics have also started pointing out that India is making a mistake by insisting that the WTO first resolve the food security issue before it signed on the trade facilitation agreement. However, there is no little to suggest as to how would Modi government deal with Sonia Gandhi’s legacy of the food security Act what required the government to stock food for over 800 million Indians and sell much of it to them at absurdly low price. This is one of the major challenges that Modi government would have to live with in coming days.

Cautious Watch

Many political pundits are also worried that PM Modi’ silence could be interpreted as a lull before the storm. History is replete with examples when absolute power prompted many leaders to undertake out of box approach without caring for public opinion. They are wondering if Modi would go the same way as India Gandhi did in 1971 or Rajiv Gandhi did in 1984 on the basis of a brute majority. They are wondering if Modi would do the same as Indira Gandhi did to Kamlapati Tripathi for his just one vague off the cuff remark against her in a media briefing or he would behave like Rajiv Gandhi who had arrogantly fired  Andhra Chief Minister T Anjaih at the airport and foreign secretary AP Venkateshwaran at a press conference.

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