Monday, June 29, 2015

Cricketainment Googlies Bowled ..... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard / June 28, 2015

Cricketainment Googlies Bowled to LaMo, But Aimed at NaMo, Which He Must Squarely Deflect

PM Narendra Modi

Public discourse and narratives are expected to deal with issues and ideologies, and not individuals. But authors, promoters and hawkers of new politics, and even newer journalism, are now setting new norms of public conduct. Even though they lack both intellectual calibre and self-identity, these faux-intellectuals and neo-moralists are defining the role and conduct of integral institutions like the judiciary, the executive, journalism and politics. Instead of collecting the facts first and coming to conclusions later, they decide the verdicts in advance by resorting to selective information or manufacturing fiction to bolster their conclusions.

Something brazenly bizarre is happening in Indian politics. The ongoing acerbic war of words on former IPL czar Lalit Modi is not confined to any issue regarding governance or policy. It simply revolves around Lalit’s morning tweets about a few individuals. All political parties and mediapersons latch on to his naughty tweets to make, unmake and tar the images of those being gleefully mentioned by Lalit. Questions are being raised not about money laundering, match-fixing or political impropriety, but on the integrity of the supporters and contrarians over the Lalit Saga. Even the names of the dramatis personae are selectively leaked and then discussed ad nauseam. According to sources close to Lalit, over 50 prominent personalities from the corporate and legal world, Bollywood, sports and culture participated in the proceedings in London courts where the case against Lalit was being heard. Mysteriously, only a few names are on the conversation list while many others are kept under the wraps for unknown reasons.
There is nothing wrong in taking a position on an issue. After all each case has two sides to the story. I was one of the witnesses who went to London three years ago to attend one of the hearings in my personal capacity and at my own expense. My stand was limited to the question of political vendetta against the person who created the world’s finest sports league, which in 2014 generated a revenue of $7.2 billion and made many players, sports administrators and team owners super-rich and mighty. But hubris gets the better of anyone who gets high on the champagne of success. It happened with Lalit too. He became arrogant and started taking on the leviathans in the BCCI. My deposition in court was limited to the general perception that Lalit was singled out for persecution for alleged financial misdemeanours while other powerful members of the IPL and BCCI who were party to all the decisions were spared by the investigative agencies. The top judiciary of the UK found that all the witnesses and written depositions were credible. But Indian roadside justice-deliverers found them questionable. They are happy to deliver vigilante verdicts on the Lalits and the Shahs but retreat into a laminated shell of awe when it comes to the Gandhis.
The current commercial contractors of probity in public life are trying to taint every individual, including Justice Jeevan Reddy—the epitome of honesty and impeccable integrity in public life—for stating what he found to be legally correct. Such tangential aspersions raise another fundamental question on the democracy of truth. Just because a person has held the office of a judge, a minister or an editor, does he lose his fundamental right to freedom of expression? Can an honest opinion or a factual testimony given by a retired judge or a prominent journalist be treated as an act of quid pro quo sans proof? But the lynch mob that delivers instant justice believes no one else can express his or her opinion. Since they control the levers of power and the media, they can screech day in day out about the alleged impropriety committed by others while forgetting their own inglorious past, which would be blatantly blemished if judged by their own standards. The Indian media and other self-appointed deities of honesty give clean chits to many tainted corporate honchos or conceal information that would affect their friends, but claim immunity from any charge of favouritism. Unfortunately, those who have received patronage from the government—current or previous—in the form of directorships, foreign assignments and think-tank posts are the ones giving lectures about the ethics of people who lack access to the establishment unless they are members of an elite club class or a college or a school.
It is quite evident that the Lalit Saga is a Machiavellian attempt to settle personal scores and dent the image of PM Narendra Modi. The BJP has been rightly claiming for the past year that it has provided a scam-free government. The Opposition hasn’t been able to offer any credible evidence of financial corruption against any top BJP leader or a Central minister. If BJP sources are to be believed, national polity has become the pitch for dirty cricket politics. Since some of the top leaders in the Opposition and the NDA have been active participants in the multi-billion-dollar cricketainment industry, they are digging up dirt on their own colleagues to retain indirect control over the game and the party’s decision-making forums. For the past few years, no visible action has been taken against any powerful personality involved in any of the cricket scams. Even BJP MPs are speaking against each other. This has resulted in collateral damage to the personal image of the PM who has been exclusively focusing on governance. By letting the alleged malpractices of his Cabinet ministers, CMs or any state minister to dominate primetime headlines and drawing room confabulations, NaMo’s detractors inside and outside are determined to downsize his image as a person who doesn’t take any nonsense. It is also an attempt to erode his authority as PM. The Congress sees Lalitgate as a god-sent opportunity to tarnish Modi. As BJP ministers indulge in an “I-am-cleaner-than-my-colleague” competition, the Congress objective is to extract the scalp of at least one of the leaders involved in the controversy so that NaMo remains crippled for the rest of his term. What could be worse for a leader like him if a 44-MP party can inflict a festering political wound on the 54-inch chest of the PM within 14 months of his tenure?
Moreover, the entire crop of the non-BJP leadership, from the extreme Left to the Congress, would welcome a highly demoralised PM and a divided BJP taking to the campaign trail during the crucial Bihar elections. Modi has no option but to deflect the missiles emanating from the subverted silos of Lalit Saga by targeting his foes carefully and choosing his friends wisely. He must find out who gains from his failure.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, June 22, 2015

When Messengers Shoot ........ Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ June 21, 2015

When Messengers Shoot Each Other, It's the Message that Becomes the First Casualty

When newspersons become newsmakers, they are writing the obituary of news. When newspapers run down their competitors, it amounts to self-assassination. When TV channels froth at the mouth against one another, it indicates the total commercialisation of the news industry. The media is considered to be the messenger who carries good, bad and ugly news to its readers and viewers. Never before has it been under such intensive scrutiny as now. In the melee of high-octave philippic and incendiary wars of words, the arena of dialogue is turning out to be a show of Media vs Media. Every word written by journalists and every statement made by TV anchors is being perceived as an attempt to either favour someone or run down another. The social media is flooded with the choicest of abuses against a large number of journalists, media owners and panelists who hide their real selves and peddle their support for a party, their mentors and benefactors with liberal licence.

For the past few weeks, two leading newspapers—Times of India and Hindustan Times—are locked in an advertisement battle over reach and readership. Both are releasing sarcastic statements to disprove their respective claims. Together they control over 50 per cent of the total English readership in important cities. But their open jeremiad is confusing their readers about their objectives. Are they in the media industry to disseminate correct, fair and fresh news or just to improve their bottom lines?
TV channels do not lag behind in this game of thrones. Three of them—Times Now, India Today and NDTV 24X7—are running commercials dissing their competitors. Their acrimony has less to do with the quality and quantity of content than the manner and style with which it is served to their viewers. If one channel calls another a noisemaker, the other retorts by terming its rival as one beholden to the establishment. They don’t realise that in the end, they are destroying the credibility of a medium, which is meant to protect the freedom of expression, and not just monetary interests.
The Indian media is perhaps the most fearless and independent institution among its peers worldwide. Its anchors and reporters can say and write anything about political leaders, corporate honchos, spiritual gurus and others in the high and mighty list and get away with it. By and large, the print media is still able to provide a relatively more objective and widespread coverage of events, but the so-called 24X7 channels have just become single-news-a-day broadcasters. They pick up a story in the morning and run it for the next 24 hours, with other news items thrown in as fillers. But what is worrisome for the future of the Indian media is its predictability about the coverage of a personality or an event. Readers and viewers now can draw instant conclusions after merely looking at a byline, or a face on a TV debate. Just about 50-odd personalities dominate the public discourse on all political issues. This opinionated cabal rushes from one channel to another in the yadda yadda game. The same ones cook the same gruel in their newspaper columns. The media, instead of expending its space for inclusive views, is now gladly willing to bend over backwards for those who are either perceived to be or claim to be close to the established power structure in industry, politics and entertainment. 
But the media has crossed the line by assuming the role of a messiah. With TV providing journalists with a larger-than-life status, most of them are one-man judge and jury—framing charges, leading the prosecution, and delivering the verdict at one go.
The media is now involved in competitive cacophony. The person who can beat down the other with his decibel level, and not by logical argument, is declared the winner. The ability to scream adjective-laden rhetoric rather than offering a cohesive point of view makes a journalist or a has-been one more acceptable to media platforms. Anchors and participants in TV debates or editorial writers are chosen on the basis of a predetermined agenda. The Indian media is expected to provide space to all shades of opinions. But one can now predict the outcome of a debate by just glancing at the faces on the screen. If one analyses the flood of cyberviews, it is clear that media behemoths are now keeping contrarians out of the system. Each one of these organisations—print and electronic—has its own set of favourite haranguers, who are expected to take forward the line dictated by them. Even in the past, newspaper owners and editors would take the final call on the organisation’s policy on various issues. For example, The Express group decided to fight the dictatorial tendencies of the Indira Gandhi government before and during the Emergency. But the views were confined to the edit pages only. Reporters were advised to dig out the dirt and report the facts. Arun Shourie, the formidable crusader against corruption, wrote a series of exposés against leading corporate houses and political leaders and brought to light scams, but never did he scream or demand even once the sacking of any of his targets. His informatively written words had the lethal impact to shake the system.
From the early 70s till 2000, the media confined itself to exposing scandals. If Madhavsinh Solanki, I K Gujral and later Natwar Singh were forced to resign, it was not thanks to a shouting match in the media but because of the credibility and quality of the news content. Written words had the power to pierce the armour of power more than the sharpest of weapons.
There is nothing wrong in expressing one’s opinion and ideology. What is unethical is the current tendency on the part of opinion writers, experts and columnists to hide their commercial interests and connections. All of us have our favourites and bread and butter suppliers. But it should be mandatory for all participants in public discourse to declare their covert linkages with the establishment. With over 800 news channels and 4,000 newspapers and magazines in circulation in India, it is becoming increasingly difficult for gullible readers to tell the difference between news and biased views. For the sake of the media’s own credibility, each talking head and writer should be made to disclose his or her relationship with ministers, government-sponsored directorships in various bluechip companies and commercial relations with foreign and corporate-funded think-tanks.
During the past few years, the disconnect between what the media thinks and believes and what ordinary people feel is growing. This gap concerns the electronic media more than print. Since the total viewership of English and Hindi channels is not growing as much as the readership of the regional print media, the battle for eyeballs and a better share of the moolah is taking an ugly turn.
Earlier, the threat to the independence of the press came from politics. Now it comes from within. The media and mediapersons have pushed the industry to the precipice of credibility. Unless it is reversed, India would soon lose an instrument that has the power to stall any threat to the freedom of expression and liberty of the people.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Outcome of the War ........ Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ June 14, 2015

The Outcome of the War in Pataliputra Will Lay Future Contours of Road to Indraprastha

Power corrupts even the saintly. The insatiable hunger for absolute power corrupts ideology, absolutely beyond redemption. An elegy of moral belief is being penned in Bihar as the countdown for the crucial Assembly elections begins. Individuals seeking power at any post and cost are incinerating ideologies. Hence, the irony of opportunism was lost on Bihar CM Nitish Kumar when he drove down to the residence of Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi—who had accused him of duplicity in 2010—to strike a political deal to contest the elections. For the past 40 years, Patna’s political pugilist has survived and thrived by fighting the dynastic ethos of the Congress. Nitish and senior colleagues in the Janata Parivar have, in the past, used the choicest invectives against Sonia, Rahul and the Congress. It is indeed a paradox that on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Emergency on June 25, 1975, the very same detainees of despotism are extending their hands of friendship to those whose party and family inflicted vicious wounds on individual liberty. Next week, leaders of all the factions of the Janata Parivar and Left parties are likely to conspire and confabulate on seat-sharing for the Assembly polls. They are flirting with each other, not for the purpose of providing an alternative model of good governance but with the only objective to put a brake on the Modi juggernaut in Bihar.
History repeats itself. In political history, new players who adopt the practices and slogans of the past are incarnated when power and populism intersect. Forty years ago, forces from the extreme Right to the extreme Left got together with the regional parties and coined the slogan ‘Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao (defeat Indira, save the nation)’. None of the Opposition stalwarts could tolerate the arrogance and the authoritarian style of PM Indira Gandhi. In the era she straddled, she was the last word in politics and governance. The Socialist parties and BJP (then known as Jan Sangh) were in her cross hairs. When they failed to mobilise enough public opinion against her, it was left to the somewhat somnolent social samaritan Jayaprakash Narayan from Bihar to wake up and lead the anti-Indira movement, which eventually led to the imposition of the Emergency, the merger of many parties causing the birth of the Janata Party, and the subsequent defeat of the Congress and Indira Gandhi herself in 1977. Since the new formation was not based on any definite ideology, it collapsed like ninepins soon after their target of removing Indira Gandhi from power was achieved.
A similar political adventurism is underway, but the playfield this time is Bihar, not India. In the eyes of his neo-secular enemies, Modi has replaced Indira. All the non-NDA parties have coalesced and conjured up the slogan: Modi Harao, Secularism Bachao (defeat Modi and save secularism). Instead of the BJP, it is PM Modi who poses a threat to their political future. They have convinced themselves that by trouncing the BJP in Bihar, they would be able to corrode Modimagic and erode his authority and confidence. The heroes of the Emergency—the BJP and Socialists—are now at war in Bihar. It is incongruous that villains of the Emergency, too, can be found in both camps. According to the latest indications, over a dozen diminutive political parties, including the Left, are likely to forge an alliance and put up common candidates against the BJP and its allies. While both factions are targeting fringe leaders like former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi and Pappu Yadav to maximise the caste matrix, anti-Modi forces have decided to set their sights on the PM. They feel the BJP is almost in a similar position as the Congress was under Indira Gandhi—if the tricolour party was a zero without Indira, the BJP without Modi is a high-powered SUV without an engine.
Like Gujarat was Modi’s laboratory to test and hone his administrative and political skills, his opponents have now converted Bihar into a high-tech tab to invent an antidote to Modi’s invincibility. Both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav aren’t only engaged in social reengineering. They want to paint Modi as the villain of social harmony and a crusader championing crony capitalism. Lalu has gone to the extent of declaring he wouldn’t mind ingesting poison if it can defeat Modi in Bihar. According to the election strategy of the united Janata factions, they are going to beat the war drums, damning the opportunistic alliances made by the BJP in Kashmir and with Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar. Additionally, the battle for the state is turning out to be a doppelgänger of the Delhi scenario. The Delhi Assembly contest was Kejriwal vs Modi, since no other BJP leader, including the parachute paragon Kiran Bedi, could come within miles of Kejriwal’s magnetism. In Patna too, it is going to be Modi vs Nitish Kumar. Taking advantage of the absence of any powerful local BJP leader, the anti-Modi phalanx deliberately chose Nitish as their gladiator to take on the BJP behemoth. Nitish may not have, of late, a credible track record of good governance like Modi, but he is considered to be the most powerful leader in Bihar for the moment. Moreover, all the parties backing him represent over 55 per cent of the total votes. In 2010, the BJP-JD(U) combine fought the Assembly elections together and won 206 seats out of a total of 243 and polled over 39 per cent of the votes. Now the JD(U), which had secured 22.58 per cent votes then, has decided to fight the BJP in cahoots with the Congress, the Left and RJD. Their total vote share was around 55 per cent in 2010. Even in the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the combined vote percentage of the anti-BJP parties was over 47 as against around 37 per cent garnered by the NDA. Bihar is not going to be a cakewalk for the BJP, since it has rarely fought an Assembly election without a powerful regional ally in the past 30 years. Modi could break caste and class barriers with his sheer appeal and charisma in the Lok Sabha polls. The voters of Bihar felt they had no alternative other than him to be the best man to rule from Delhi. With the BJP performing at below-expectation levels at the Centre, Modi’s detractors are projecting Nitish as the local alternative who can govern Bihar better than any state BJP leader who functions through remote control from Delhi.
The death of ideologies in Bihar has revived the unfinished battle for supremacy between the national icon Modi and the regional warrior Nitish Kumar. The outcome of the war in Pataliputra will lay the future contours of the road to Indraprastha.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, June 8, 2015

India's Nationalist President..... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ June 07, 2015

India's Nationalist President Conquers the World by Waging Peace and Talking Business

Pranab Mukherjee

First, it was Bangladesh. Then Mauritius, Belgium and Turkey, followed by Vietnam, Norway, Finland, Bhutan and Russia. The latest were Sweden and Belarus. The world is his oyster, but for President Pranab Mukherjee, India is the banquet. Those in the know at Rashtrapati Bhavan will tell you President Mukherjee used to hate travelling abroad. He specifically disliked ceremonial visits, because he believed the role of the President of India, especially during foreign visits, should be in the national interest—proactive and dialogue-driven, while keeping the country’s geopolitical and economic priorities in mind. Hence, he used to joke that he hated packing and unpacking for long sojourns overseas. All that changed when he realised that India needed more than a ceremonial head of state, who merely raised toasts at sumptuous banquets, made pretty speeches at official dinners and gave perfect photo-ops at national monuments. The President was a national ambassador and unifier while abroad, and not a glorified tourist.
This was quite evident during Mukherjee’s four-day visit to Sweden and Belarus last week. The hectic pace of the air miles covered, treaties signed, negotiations concluded and speeches delivered belied his age, but set new benchmarks for the power of connectivity and mutually beneficial engagements with his hosts. Since Indian presidents are not conventionally expected to travel to superpower nations such as the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and others, Mukherjee has always chosen to visit those nations, which can play an important role in India’s strategic and trade relations. Last week was his 10th visit abroad since he took over as India’s 13th President in July 2012. As he was the first Indian President to travel to both countries, he fixed his itinerary and meetings in such a way that all important segments like politics, diplomacy, business, culture and academics were addressed. During the 25 meetings and official functions the President attended, his interactions were not of a random nature, but well thought through. He adopted a theme suited to every occasion and audience. Yet the running theme was synergy between Indian nationalism and local icons, business leaders, the Indian Diaspora, academics and foreign leaders. Mukherjee used each and every platform to convey to his audience the fact that engaging with a resurgent India would fetch mutual rewards. He addressed business forums, visited important universities and held parleys with even the opposition leaders of the countries. Normally it is the Prime Minister or the head of the government who gets a standing ovation from the people, since it is in the scepter in his hand that real power resides. With President Mukherjee, it was a different story.
Rarely has a President from India got such a massive applause from audiences abroad—not only from the NRIs in Sweden and Belarus but also from the local academic and cultural elite. For example, when the Indian Ambassador to Sweden, Ms Banashri Bose Harrison, sent out an invitation to NRIs and other local dignitaries for a reception in honour of the President, the response was unprecedented. All the attendees rose to hail the President after he finished his speech. They walked to the dais in a row to be photographed with him. The highlight of the function was his 20-minute extempore speech, the kind of which an Indian President has rarely delivered. His advice to the audience was to connect with local culture and become the unofficial ambassadors of India’s rich heritage while remaining attentive to local laws. Since Mukherjee was one of India’s senior-most politicians before he moved to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he knew the power of focused delivery and the historical grasp to invoke India’s golden past and remind the people of both countries about the relevance of national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. The past and the present segued seamlessly as he also informed his hosts about the new environment of growth and confidence, which prevails in India under the new dispensation. Mukherjee used his visit to Sweden’s Uppasala University to speak on the ‘Relevance of Tagore and Gandhi in World Peace’ to reiterate India’s commitment to plurality and coexistence. He said, “Tagore’s views on ‘nationalism’ reveal his distaste for parochialism, racial divide and social stratification. He firmly believed that world peace could never be achieved until big and powerful nations curbed their desire for territorial expansion and control over smaller nations.” According to the poet, the Orient and the Occident must meet on a common ground on terms of equal fellowship: “where knowledge flows in two streams—from the East and from the West.” However, as usual, the unity of cultures was the Presidential visit’s leitmotif. Mukherjee recollected the outstanding work done by Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Swedish leader and the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. 
In Belarus, too, respect and popularity formed the subtext of Mukherjee’s speeches. At a prominent university,  he said, “The intellectual calibre of the university and its alumni is reflected in the fact that it contributes as many as three out of every four researchers to the Belarus Academy of Sciences. Your pursuit of scientific knowledge and advanced research places this university at the centre of Belarus’ national developmental programmes.” Addressing the Indo-Belarus Business Council, Mukherjee said, “As you are aware, India is emerging as one of the largest economies in the world and one of the fastest-growing emerging markets with an average annual growth rate of more than 7 per cent over the past decade. There are positive signals that suggest that we may be moving to an even higher growth path.” He added, “Our bilateral trade turnover is modest and way below its real potential. I am, however, optimistic. My interactions with President Lukashenko make me hopeful that we can increase our trade to a level of $1 billion by the year 2020. I am confident that this level is achievable if we expand the range of items in our trade basket, increase the share of high technology and value-added products and enhance exchanges and cooperation in the services sector, such as healthcare, IT, financial services, transport and logistics.” He invited Swedes to invest in India. The astute political instinct latent in Mukherjee understood that ambience also plays an important role in building a relationship. In Stockholm, he accepted King Carl XVI Gustaf’s invitation for a boat ride and to absorb the views of Swedish business leaders. For over an hour, the President heard out over a dozen of them regarding their issues with India.
With the rich experience of having governed the defence, economic and diplomatic establishment of India, Mukherjee has proved himself to be Modi’s best companion in India’s quest to become a global super power. The President left many things unsaid when he quoted Tagore to his audience at Uppasala University, “It was Buddha who conquered the world, not Alexander.” Mukherjee’s conquest of the world in India’s interests holds the subtle undertone of waging peace and connecting nations.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, June 1, 2015

New Cab Sec....... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ May 31, 2015

New Cab Sec: Modi's Mission of Making Bureaucracy an Obedient Partner Gets Headstart

Pradeep Kumar Sinha

Suspense and surprise are the tools of a successful leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a predilection for springing surprises. Whether it is over the selection of Cabinet ministers or choosing senior civil servants for crucial posts, he has always defied the rule of predictability. When his colleagues expect him to experiment, he baffles them by opting for conventional wisdom. When they are sure he would follow convention when choosing senior bureaucrats, Modi prefers merit over experience.

Last week, when he appointed Pradeep Kumar Sinha, a discreetly low-profile IAS officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre as the 31st Cabinet Secretary of India, the PM endorsed the seniority principle. Sinha, a 1977 batch officer, is the senior-most secretary in the Central government. For the past few weeks, corporate lobbyists, some not-so-powerful ministers and retired babus had been either lobbying for their favourites, or betting in favour of the incumbent Cabinet Secretary, Ajit Kumar Seth, getting yet another extension. Those tormented with the Gujarat phobia were spreading the rumour that only an officer from that state would be given the catbird seat. A group of influence peddlers connected with Foreign Institutional Investors had put their last greenback on an IAS officer from the Rajasthan cadre.
When Modi retained Seth after coming to power, it baffled many BJP leaders since the senior bureaucrat was seen as a staunch UPA loyalist. He had never even served in any significant ministry before being handpicked by Manmohan Singh. But Seth proved his mettle for both Singh and Modi by becoming the fifth Cabinet Secretary since 1950 to last in his seat for four years. The others were Y Sukhthanker, B D Pande, B K Chaturvedi and K M Chandrasekhar. Seth was hoping to set a record of being the longest serving Cabinet Secretary by getting a six-month extension. But Modi realised that it would be setting a bad example by denying promotion to over half a dozen IAS officers who are due to retire by end of this year.
Earlier, too, many deserving candidates couldn’t become Cabinet Secretaries because Chaturvedi, Chandrasekhar and Seth were given the maximum number of extensions. Since Modi is heavily dependent on the bureaucracy for the implementation of his development agenda, he is unwilling to have a demoralised civil service queer his pitch. While he continues to fill various ministries with trusted bureaucrats, he chose Sinha to ensure continuity and stability. After spending over a year in the PM’s chair, Modi has finally realised that the success or failure of the leader of 1.25 billion people is precariously dependent on the active cooperation of over 900 secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries. For the past 13 months, they have been forced to reach office before 9 am, but their productivity hasn’t increased commensurately. By nature, babus are pygmies. They are, however, capable of halting an elephant in its tracks with red tape and regulation tricks. Modi replaced over 60 secretary-level officials after the retirement of the incumbent officers, but continued with Seth since the officer was privy to the ways and means of the UPA government. It was the PM’s first encounter with the army of official mercenaries whose only object is to thrive even if the country is on the verge of an administrative chaos.
Normally, the induction of a Cabinet Secretary hardly makes important news. But ever since Modi took over, he and the PMO have been charged with excessive centralisation of power. The appointment of over half a dozen officers from the Gujarat cadre led his detractors to believe that the concept of a committed bureaucracy—which was Indira Gandhi’s hallmark—will stage a comeback. They felt the process would start with the selection of a pliable or loyal civil servant from Modi’s home state as the new Cabinet Secretary, who is considered the guardian of the 7,000-strong IAS officers. He is the one who presides over most of the selection panels, which shortlists officers for sensitive appointments. Not only does he report directly to the PM, his office too is out of bounds for even ministers and top babus, thanks to its location inside the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The most important part of his assignment is to keep records of all the meetings of the Cabinet and its committees. He is also the link between the PMO and various ministries, and serves as the eyes and ears of the PM.
Conventionally, the senior-most IAS officer is chosen as the Cabinet Secretary. But there have been a few exceptions when some PMs found the eligible ones unacceptable or undesirable. Five Cabinet Secretaries did not last for more than a year. The conflict between the PM and his Cabinet Secretary came to the fore when Rajiv Gandhi decided to remove P K Kaul, considered an Indira loyalist, from the post in 1986. Rajiv was told that Kaul was close to Arun Nehru and was working against the PM. Kaul was dispatched to Washington as the Indian ambassador. From then on, Cabinet Secretaries were picked by various PMs on the basis of their loyalty and suitability to the ruling party. Rajiv chose T N Seshan over other deserving candidates because he was considered the best instrument to handle his adversaries in the system. Seshan survived for barely a year. V P Singh, who succeeded Rajiv as PM in December 1989, replaced Seshan with Vinod Pandey within 48 hours of taking over. Pandey was one of the toughest and cleanest officers in the IAS and was instrumental in carrying out Singh’s cleansing drive against tax defaulters. But he didn’t last either. The Congress party toppled Singh’s government and installed Chandrasekhar as the PM. Pandey was given his marching orders. It was left to Manmohan Singh to restore some sanity in the system by sticking to the stability mantra and a longer tenure for the Cabinet Secretary. He, however, was also the first PM to interview various contenders for the job, revealing his flexible approach. He didn’t follow the seniority principle when he selected B K Chaturvedi as his Cabinet Secretary, who was chosen after interviews of six other candidates. Chaturvedi lasted three years, but his successors, Chandrasekhar and Seth, stayed on for four years.
Sinha’s unexpected elevation is a clear indication that Modi doesn’t want to open a front against the bureaucracy. For him, a tamed tiger is safer than a wounded one. With one stroke of his pen, he has made the bureaucracy an obedient partner in his venture of ensuring at least maximum governance with a yet to be minimised government.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla