Modis operandi

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Apr 13 2014, 08:58am hrs
The recent piece by The Economist on the Indian elections has become a barometer of how the outside world views the front-runner, Narendra Modi. The last line is: India deserves better. The New York Times analysis had a similar tone and tenor, as did the Guardian. The ghost of 2002, it appears, will hover around his chair for some time to come, even if that chair is the one in the corner office at South Block, which Manmohan Singh seems eager to vacate. The cause for the concern is reflected in the massive, unprecedented media blitz that the BJP has launched. Apart from the huge budget, it is so symbolic of Modi operandi, the way that things will be in a Modi-led government: a one-man show. Pick up any major newspaper over the past 10 days and his unsmiling visage is the first thing you see. And the only thing you see. There is no other leader, not even the party president.

Equally, it spells out the way that his government is likely to function. It is also indicative of why India Inc, and the stock markets, are so gung ho about the prospect of Modi at 7 Race Course Road. The Economist in its Schumpeter column looks at how big business would like Modi to govern. They (corporates) hope Mr Modi will make decisions fast. They want to see him unleash his administrative skills on the central-government machine, banging heads together, rationalising Byzantine procedures and making rules predictable. Clean firms also hope he could use his oratory and force of personality to combat graft. Plenty of people may feel India Incs support for Mr Modi is unprincipled. But at a time when confidence in the countrys economy is at a low, it is easy to see why firms are drawn to pragmatism, and backing their best hope for a government that works better.

A government that works better is not such a stretch considering the record of UPA II. What is key is whether big business has embraced some grand illusion or is their faith justified Most of them are going by his record in Gujarat where his pro-business policies, focus on infrastructure and sops for the private sector will be the legacy he leaves behind if he moves to Race Course Road. What is even more indicative of Modi Operandi will be the fact that Gujarat has been pretty much a one-man show. Outside of Gujarat, and outside of Amit Shah, its difficult to remember who are Modis ministers, such is the dominance of the man and his methods. What that suggests is that we could be heading for a Presidential form of government without officially acknowledging it as such. That also means that the PMO will be an all-powerful body from where most decisions will emanate. A handful of trusted ministersdepending on how they fare in the electionmay be allowed to operate independentlybut key decisions will clearly be made in the PMO and passed on to various ministries to implement.

That may not be such a bad thing considering that the PMO has gradually lost authority and much of its clout over the last decade or so. Indira Gandhi ran the country through a handful of trusted aides till the Emergency forced her to embrace son Sanjays favourites and sycophants. Hers was the first hint of authoritarian rule and a single power centre. It did not work for her because it eventually threatened Indias greatest pride and assetdemocracy and rule of law. Modi will not be so reckless, knowing the eyes of the world will be on him, but he also needs to deliver fast on the promises being made by himstability, a clean government, decisiveness, accountability, development and, above all, jobs. In short, an economic revival. None of that will happen if he does not take charge and become the engine of change, even if it means turning most of his Cabinet into implementers rather than independent players. Those who have watched The West Wing will know how such a system works: a few trusted aides deal-making, brow-beating, negotiating, rewarding and even blackmailing, friends and foes into doing the Presidents bidding. The PMO has the ability and authority to act in a similar fashion, but only if the Prime Minister is a strong leader with a clear vision and no political IOUs like Manmohan Singh had.

Modis main challenge will be the economy, which is in no position to deliver on one of his key promises10 million jobs each year. Modi may be seen as a saviour by the business class, but he has no magic wand. Creating 10 million jobs, and not by doles like NREGA, but meaningful, skilled jobs and entrepreneurship that Indias young population is desperately in need of, will be a Herculean task, even for a man who boasts a 56-inch chest. The bottomline is that a Presidential system may have its advantages, but it also carries the greatest risk: of dictatorial rule. We have been down that road before and even Modis greatest fans in India Inc would not want a repeat, even on a shiny new highway.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express