You published a series on Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where you set out to demolish Modi the Demon and project Modi the Doer. What do you believe today?
Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat acquired the reputation for having a very sharp focus about what needed to be done – he had a clear road map; resource allocation was clearly laid out; he picked the right man for the right job; he was admired for not having favourites and no official or minister could claim proximity to him as to influence his decisions. People praised him for being a good listener and he was very accessible; he was constantly travelling to different parts of the state and had direct contact with diverse sections of society. Gujarat had his personal stamp, with a clear command control structure.
None of this can be said about Modi, the prime minister.
Let’s look at the plus side first. There’s no big-ticket corruption, no scandal or scam as yet. Fiscal deficit is low as no extravagant schemes have been announced. There’s single window clearance for projects, cash transfers in welfare programmes have minimised scope for corruption. It’s also a good idea that arms purchases will be done government to government, thus cutting out middlemen. The Yemen, Kashmir and Nepal rescue operations are very laudable.
However, Modi as PM has come as a huge shock and a big disappointment. He has created a bubble for himself from day one. It began with the swearing-in ceremony when Modi did not invite a single person from the vast army of volunteers who gave him their passionate support in the run-up to the elections – whether from the ranks of BJP-RSS [Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the Citizens for Accountable Governance, Friends of BJP, Mission 272 Plus, etc. There was not even a thank you from Modi, or even an SMS acknowledging their hard work and extraordinary effort.
Anyone serious about accountable governance would have used this huge network of supporters to boost programmes like the Beti Bachao campaign, Swacch Bharat and anti-corruption drive. In Gujarat, he was very successful in involving civil society in government programmes. Today, even eminent citizens and close associates don’t as much as get a response when they write to him.
What does it reveal about Modi the prime minister?
Obviously he wants to construct a new persona for himself. It would be worthwhile to compare Modi’s swearing-in with Arvind Kejriwal’s swearing-in at the Ram Leela grounds – there was mass rejoicing; it was open to all citizens. At Modi’s ceremony, those who were occupying pride of place were film stars, Adanis, Ambanis and socialites. Why would you want to do this?
Is Modi glamour-struck after moving to Delhi?
I would say disorientation. After coming to 7 RCR [Race Course Road], it has brought a dramatic makeover for his persona. It indicates the desire to adopt a totally new identity and determination to avoid people who remind him of his past – much in the same way a new bride from a modest background tries to refashion herself to suit her wealthy sasural. He certainly displays his penchant for glamour, the high and mighty, even wanting to be a fashion icon – these are not positive signs coming from someone who is supposed to lead India out of its morass.
Is he being a wannabe?
That’s the impression you give, when you change your attire five times a day or wearing a new suit for each occasion when visiting abroad. It doesn’t behove a serious statesman to try and become a fashion icon. You wouldn’t notice what Obama is wearing, right?
What did you think of his monogrammed suit?
It did Modi a lot of damage and it’ll stick. It’s vanity that’s coming through… it’s this bubble he’s created for himself.
What are your other disappointments?
The second jolt was the cabinet appointees. I may have reacted very fiercely to Smriti Irani’s appointment because education is very close to my heart but many key appointments are lacklustre and don’t fit the job profile. Modi’s choice of cabinet colleagues caused a deep upset even within his party. On the one hand he rode roughshod over party hierarchy by sidelining most of the senior leaders. On the other hand, he gave the most weighty portfolios to those who have never won an election in their life. Both [Arun] Jaitley and Irani lost even at the height of the Modi wave. Therefore, even first-time MPs like Meenakshi Lekhi are raging as to why they have not been given a ministerial berth.
Of course, few appointments like [Manohar] Parrikar as Defence Minister is creditable. But again, a credible face like Harsh Vardhan was unceremoniously removed as Health Minister even though he had a clean image and competence in that field. Modi had promised far-reaching administrative reforms and bringing synergy between different ministries by breaking silos. He did this well in Gujarat. But as PM he has allowed the old chaos to prevail.
For instance, Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Irrigation and Food Processing should have been clubbed under one ministry with dedicated teams of experts. But nothing of the sort happened and so the old system prevails. In Gujarat, Modi gave the highest priority to rejuvenating agriculture. But as PM one doesn’t see in him that sense of urgency about reviving the health of farm sector. The man appointed as his agriculture minister seems as rudderless as his HRD minister.
What do you think of the decision to replace the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog?
The Planning Commission was scrapped with much fanfare but Niti Aayog took months to come into being with only three people appointed till date to replace the mammoth structure – that too without a clear mandate. It’s inexplicable why there is not a single farm sector expert in Niti Aayog – this, when agriculture is in deep crisis.
Any change in corruption?
There’s no noticeable difference for the ordinary citizen who is still battling harassment and bribes. An important reason why BJP suffered such a humiliating defeat in the Delhi elections is that the party failed to make the slightest improvements in the scam-ridden and inefficient Delhi Municipal Corporation which the BJP rules. Modi could have easily cracked the whip on councillors on corruption, demanded performance, or [told them] to deliver at least a spotless Swachh Delhi within six months. But apart from municipal councillors doing the silly nautanki of holding the broom for the benefit of news cameras, we did not witness the slightest improvement on governance. Hence the backlash.
What does IAS officer Ashok Khemka’s transfer yet again show?
The PM had let it be known that Ashok Khemka, the IAS officer who risked his life and career in exposing Robert Vadra’s fraudulent land deals in Haryana, would be brought in to the PMO. But I have it from very reliable sources that Arun Jaitley put his foot down and got that decision cancelled. Worse still, the chargesheet filed against Khemka by the Congress government has not been withdrawn by the new BJP government in Haryana. What’s more, he has been humiliated further with a punishment posting where he has no work, no staff and office space that resembles a garage.
Similarly, the PM had promised that justice would be done to Sanjay Srivastava, the Income Tax Commissioner who caught the alleged Chidambaram-NDTV hawala scam [Editor’s Note: In a statement last year, NDTV denied Madhu Kishwar’s charges of a scam and announced that it is initiating legal action against her for making defamatory allegations]. He too was hounded out of his job by Chidambaram with numerous false cases filed against him when the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] was in power. His chargesheet has not been withdrawn, he continues to be on “compulsory wait”. The rules permit an officer to draw his salary while on “compulsory wait” but Srivastava continues to be deprived of his posting and salary since April 2013.
It is the same story with the promise regarding the return of black money stashed in foreign accounts. This was a major electoral promise of Modi but there is very little follow-up required to fulfil that promise.
You spent hours talking to Modi, interviewing him, what has gone wrong?
I think many of the problems arise from the fact that Modi has decided to cocoon himself and become inaccessible. Compare it to how Sonia Gandhi built a power base for herself starting from total scepticism about her suitability for the top job. One of the first things she did was to co-opt several high profile do-gooders as her personal courtiers by creating the National Advisory Council. With this one stroke she managed to tie most of the NGO leaders, left-leaning academics and intellectuals to her apron strings.
They became intoxicated by their proximity to the UPA High Command and felt they had high stakes in this government. Even though the NAC was an unconstitutional body, none of the leftist intellectuals or activists objected because she made them stakeholders in the government. They also helped create a halo for Sonia Gandhi as someone who was pro-poor, pro-minorities, pro all good causes. Even though the Congress ran a scam-ridden government, the leftist NGOs and intellectuals remained Sonia’s firm allies.
By contrast, far from creating new allies, Modi has studiously distanced himself from old allies like Arun Shourie, the Jethmalanis and numerous others who stood by him. Even his party colleagues do not have easy access to him. And who has he surrounded himself with? Nameless, faceless bureaucrats and a couple of political favourites who are themselves lightweights. If you want to be seen as a tall leader, you can’t afford to be surrounded by political dwarfs. To surround yourself with yes men is a sure shot disaster recipe.
Isn’t the India Foundation being groomed to look like the NAC?
Far from it. At the Goa conclave, India Foundation attracted a substantial talent pool of super bright young people eager to do their bit for India. I doubt very much that any of them have been recruited to help the government. It’s unfortunate that the BJP has not yet developed the tradition of nurturing high worth intellectuals and academics. It has not done so even in states where it has been in power. Even Modi failed to do so in Gujarat even though as CM he paid far more attention to the education sector than he is doing as PM. BJP better realise that the education sector provides the software for effective politics. They will continue to suffer from talent deficit if they don’t pay serious attention to this domain.
How has he handled the agrarian crisis?
To begin with, there’s been complete mismanagement on the Land Acquisition Bill, Modi should not have left it to Rahul Gandhi to start his padyatra and label him as anti-farmer. Second, the government’s response to the agrarian crisis on account of untimely rains and hailstorm has been far from effective. As farm policy expert Ashok Gulati has pointed out, in this day and age of technology you can use satellite imagery and drones to assess crop damage and get computerised data for each farm within hours. This can be easily tied up with the Aadhar card system to reach speedy compensation to farmers. This job should not have been left to the corruption-friendly and inefficient patwari system. The relief money should have reached the farmers with the same speed with which the PM responded to the Nepal disaster.
There is also very little sign of Modi government introducing noteworthy changes in farm policy that need to be brought in on a war footing.
At a personal level too, it was important for Modi to be seen interacting with farmers and coming up with innovative schemes that gave them hope. But his avoiding to do so is both puzzling and disappointing.
Modi has been accused of being a Capitalist Crony? Adani is his constant companion on official trips abroad?
It is a well-established fact that crony capitalists thrived under the socialist regimes of the Congress. Ambani or Adani are not Modi creations. In Gujarat the fact is that Modi created an overall business friendly ecosystem. Even small-scale industry thrived. People from many other states went and invested in Gujarat grew fast. Adani’s growth ought not to be an issue if others are also allowed due space to thrive. However, it was not appropriate of Modi to personally preside over Adani signing mining contracts in Australia.
What about his self-promotion pageants abroad?
Pageantry apart, one area where Modi has undoubtedly made a substantial difference is in the foreign policy domain. The Congress had ignored this crucial area and put India in a very vulnerable position. Modi is determined to fix this with urgency. If in the process, he indulges in some amount of extra hoopla, so be it. No doubt he loves himself, even though self-love is not a bad thing if it’s not out of control. However, when the performance is not in sync with image, then it risks looking exaggerated.
Like you, there were several academics, analysts and journalists who openly supported Modi in the campaign. Do they agree with you?
All of his well-wishers are sounding alarm bells. Recently the loudest one came from Arun Shourie on Headlines Today. Either Modi is floundering because the task is too big and he doesn’t have a competent team or because he has decided he has reached the acme and doesn’t need to bother any more. The Modi we all supported was someone who seemed to care intensely to make India a global power in the best sense of the term, someone who was passionate about improving the life conditions of the most marginalised. Maybe he is preparing the ground for all that in a slow, quiet manner and we will see the results in a year or two. All I can say is people may lose their patience if they don’t see signs of visible change.
What’s your message for Modi?
Failure is not an option because India cannot afford to waste more time. People have invested their hopes in you. You cannot be timid about government reforms without which you cannot deliver your promises. If you are seen faltering or being half-hearted the backlash will be more ferocious than the tsunami of support that swept you to power.