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The Modi government is the most faceless, nameless & talent-averse India has seen

By Shekhar Gupta

23rd September 2018

The Modi government has run out of intellectual capital and this explains its stall in key sectors and fading momentum.

Let’s set it up with three questions. Is the Narendra Modi government talent-averse? Second, if so, is this the most talent-averse leadership in seven decades? And third, does it really matter, for Modi, BJP, and the voter?

The answer to the first and the second is yes. The third, we can then debate once the basic postulates are established.

First, the cabinet. You can understand it being largely inexperienced. The BJP had been out of power for 10 years and most of Vajpayee’s cabinet colleagues were a bit old and consigned to the ‘Margdarshak Mandal’. The younger ones, like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar were included. There is also Nitin Gadkari with relevant experience (infrastructure-building) as a minister in his state, Maharashtra, and hard-working Piyush Goyal who grew into a man for all seasons, holding four or five key portfolios in a mostly full-strength cabinet. Beyond these, name 10 more members of Modi’s council of 73 ministers, without calling a friend, or googling.

Here’s a cruel ploy I’ve used in my many public speaking interactions with diverse audiences, from journalism students to blue-chip CEOs, since the Modi government entered its fifth year. Can you name your country’s agriculture minister? I am yet to see a hand go up. When you say Radha Mohan Singh, the question is, but who’s he?

Good question. But does it matter who he is when farm growth under his watch has been just about half of the average under the often-maligned Sharad Pawar in the UPA? If the prime minister’s 2017 promise of doubling farmers’ income in five years was to be met, India needed something rivalling the Green Revolution. Instead, now India has seen the most bizarre rejection and suspicion of science and agricultural research.

Unless a course-correction is made now, India is headed for a crippling new wave of brain drain: In its agricultural labs. There isn’t much future “discovering” the enormous virtues of cow excreta, liquid, semi-solid and fermented, and Vedic organic agriculture.

When Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi wanted the Green Revolution, they put as agriculture minister a man as brilliant and modern as C. Subramaniam. Shastri brought in champion plant-breeder Norman Borlaug and Indira not only persisted with him until 1967 but also supported two Indian giants, M.S. Swaminathan and M.S. Randhawa. Who does this government have driving Green Revolution 2.0?

The agriculture ministry is a good metaphor for the situation in other segments. I have had similar blank responses from diverse audiences when I ask for the names of health, chemicals and fertilisers, heavy industries, science and technology, social justice, and micro, small and medium enterprises ministers. This is without doubt the most faceless and nameless cabinet in our history.

Which would have been fine if a great team was built around the prime minister, since all governance, ideas and implementation flow from his office. He surely has efficient and devoted civil servants, but from where does the ballast of creativity come? Surely the prime minister is brilliant, has travelled through every district of the country as he says, but not even the greatest leader can do all the thinking for a continent-sized country.

It cannot be a coincidence that practically all the pre-existing discussion and advisory groups around the prime minister have been wound up, or diminished. The National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) is a tiny, relatively invisible five-member shadow of its past when it was a premier strategic powerhouse producing key national policies, the draft nuclear doctrine being one of these. It had members from diverse backgrounds, including public intellectuals and strategic thinkers. Now, the members work discreetly in their own areas of interest. The larger debate and engagement, cross-fertilisation of ideas, a process that Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra had founded, is over. The small, new NSAB is purely an in-house resource reporting to the National Security Advisor.

The two scientific advisory councils, to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, have worked in fits and starts. The Modi government appointed its own chief scientific advisor only as it neared its fifth year, found a top scientist, but downgraded the position further from minister of state to secretary. It had been scaled down earlier from cabinet to MoS when noted nuclear scientist R. Chidambaram had succeeded APJ Abdul Kalam. The scientific advisory council to the prime minister was earlier headed by Bharat Ratna Prof. CNR Rao. It is more or less defunct now.

The Modi government lost three of its four internationally known economists within its four years: Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Panagariya and Arvind Subramanian. The fourth, current RBI governor Urjit Patel, from all accounts, is now chafing and fighting back for professional honour and institutional autonomy, done with being compliant, if not complicit, with the monetary embarrassment of demonetisation.

Belatedly, as the economy struggled post demonetisation, this government did revive the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council with fanfare. But you know what? The prime minister doesn’t meet the council. He only meets the two heads, embedded within the government—economist Bibek Debroy and former IAS officer and expenditure secretary Ratan Watal. For the remaining four, it may be good for their CVs, but little else. Most of the reports prepared for the prime minister by Debroy and Watal, I understand, aren’t even shared with these “outsiders”. This is purely a government of insiders. Outsiders write flattering columns and give interviews. So they are useful cheerleaders.

There is impatience with scholarship. We should have known this when the prime minister made his “Hard work beats Harvard” jibe in the Uttar Pradesh campaign. Never mind that it takes enormous hard work for someone to get to Harvard in the first place and a government, if it is open-minded, can have the best from Harvard, MIT, Yale (with real degrees) and even JNU to serve it. It was no surprise recently when the government made an important change in the minimum qualification for the appointment of Chief Economic Advisor after Subramanian’s departure. The new CEA no longer need have an economics doctorate. Just evidence of “hard work” would do, I suppose.

Both Modi and Amit Shah believed that the earlier NDA cabinet, under Vajpayee, wasn’t quite their party’s. Now that they had the majority, they weren’t going to give any outsider any space, no matter what unique talents somebody brought.

This brings us to our third question. Does it matter to the voter? Good leaders have great minds. But great leaders also have large hearts. Indira Gandhi too ran her government from her office, but think of the talent she collected around her. Or think of Ronald Reagan, a fine communicator, charming orator and an instinctive leader, but no intellectual giant. He built a super-talented economic and strategic team and won the Cold War.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah seemed to believe that the great matter they needed, they believed, was available within. But, all capital is limited. The Modi government exhausted its intellectual capital by its third year. It does seem that Modi did feel the gap. The induction of three former civil servants, Hardeep Singh Puri, R.K. Singh and K.J. Alphons, was probably his response. But it was too little, too late.

Two recent, but relatively less-reported reform roll-backs by this government underline this: The medical education reform bill which NITI Aayog had spent four years drafting, and sale of coal mines by private companies. It was a result of poor home-work, poorer implementation, and a subsequent loss of nerve. The failed Air India sale is a good case study of a lack of conviction and drive. The offer was so idiot-proofed it became a minefield even a hashish-smoking buyer wouldn’t get into.

This sums up the Modi government’s current travails, the stall in key sectors, fading momentum, irritability—I do not believe I have seen a cabinet minister admonish and tick off journalists as this defence minister routinely does, and when they are merely asking legitimate questions. This is why a second term which looked a certainty a year ago, now seems IFFY, in all capital letters.

This article was first published in The Print.