Big Brother in Delhi

Print edition : January 20, 2017


In Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, people queue up outside a bank to deposit and exchange their demonetised Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 notes. Photo: M. Periasamy

Modi sweeps a street in a residential locality in New Delhi, a file picture. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came in with the slogan “minimum government, maximum governance”, has become the government itself.

“They might well have come to regard prime ministerial dominance as normal and, therefore, as acceptable. They might have been taken in by the media's preoccupation with the leader, his close circle, his family and his friends. They might even be over-impressed by the fact that the new prime minister had led them to victory and that they therefore owed their jobs to him. It is quite possible that they might be overawed by the sheer scale of the prime minister's department. Ministers in such a government would be not so much the prime minister's colleagues as his employees, even his courtiers - in which case the prime minister really would be a sort of president. An administration of this character is conceivable, but it seems unlikely, and, even if an administration did start out on that basis, it would be unlikely to remain on that basis for long.“

—Anthony King, The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2007).

THE eminent British Professor of Government had observed thus while making an assessment about a specific aspect of politics in the United Kingdom, particularly the impact and sway that different Prime Ministers had on the governments they led, especially on fellow Ministers in their governments. While doing so, King also points to a phenomenon he terms “theatre of celebrity”, which involves premeditated creation of a celebrity personality, which in turn is employed to enforce dominance on fellow politicians as well as the larger polity. King’s argument that such an administration is “unlikely to remain on that basis for long” does not make any reference to a specific time frame. In other words, there is no quantification in terms of years or decades.

Indian polity over the past two and a half years clearly fits in with King’s exposition of a specific trait of political dominance. In fact, the domination that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enforced over members of his Ministry as well as the larger government machinery is a striking manifestation of King’s observations. Modi’s fellow Ministers, including seniors with decades of political experience and standing, have been virtually reduced to courtiers. Important Ministries and departments, including External Affairs, Finance, Defence and Home, are run practically on the diktats and direct intervention of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The sidelining of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, a senior BJP leader, and her Ministry is conspicuous. Other seniors, such as Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, have held on somehow to whatever little authority they have in their Ministries, albeit with periods of intense disquiet. The “theatre of celebrity” is in full play, aided and abetted by a powerful propaganda apparatus to which have been coopted some important media organisations and senior journalists.

Equally important is the timing of the advancement of this dominance project. It started unfolding soon after the swearing in of the Modi regime on May 26, 2014, and has sustained itself over two and a half years despite intermittent reverses at the level of electoral politics. In the last two months of 2016, this project gathered momentum and gained strength. So much so, the sobriquet “Emperor Modi” has sprung up at different levels of the political establishment, including within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, the larger Hindutva-oriented ideological organisational network of which the BJP is a part. But in keeping with the dominance game, the voices within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are reduced to practically inaudible levels.

Two major decisions of the Union government in the last two months of 2016 underscore the phenomenal dominance Modi has been able to establish upon the Indian system of governance. The second was the surprise December 17 announcement of Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat as the next Chief of the Army Staff, who would take charge on January 1, 2017. The first was the dramatic November 8 announcement of demonetisation of Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 notes. Both decisions were essentially driven by Modi and his PMO bypassing the authority of Ministries responsible for them. Time-tested consultative processes at the level of the Cabinet and other segments of the government were flagrantly disregarded while pushing ahead with the decisions.

West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra, speaking on a television channel, said a senior Cabinet Minister had shared with him the sense of revolt and sterile rage he felt at the manner in which the news of demonetisation was broken to him. This senior Minister, along with many other Ministers, were herded into a room and made to listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on television. “He [the Minister]) told me that there was no personal interaction, only this mass or herd viewing of the announcement on television,” Mitra told the channel. He added that there were doubts within the highest levels of the Union government, among both politicians and the administrative class, about how much Finance Minister Arun Jaitley himself knew about the demonetisation before it unfolded.

Appointment of new Army Chief

The appointment of Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat went against the long-held tradition of appointing the senior-most eligible officer to the post. By tradition, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command, should have become the next Chief of the Army Staff. Lt Gen. P.M. Hariz, Southern Army Commander, the next in seniority, was also superseded. Even in the manner in which the announcement was made, there was an element of humiliation of senior Army officers who were eligible to be considered for the position.

The statement announcing the appointment went as follows: “In the current security situation, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are key issues. Therefore, the background and operational experience of officers on the panel were considered in depth while selecting the next COAS [Chief of the Army Staff]. Lt General Bipin Rawat fulfils this criteria by virtue of his operational assignments as Commanding Officer of 19 Division in J&K and his outstanding track record, and his familiarity with the functioning of the Army headquarters and Ministry of Defence in his capacity as Vice Chief…. His general dynamism has also played a role in tipping the scales in his favour.” The statement infuriated a large number of service personnel, including senior Army officers, who perceived this as casting aspersions on the potential and suitability of the two superseded generals (see story on page 15).

Interestingly, the announcement also contained the claim that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), the authority empowered to make the final selection of a significant number of senior positions in the Union government, had followed due process and taken sufficient inputs from the Defence Ministry, the Army and other requisite sources. This claim is viewed sceptically across different echelons of the government, including the Defence Ministry. This scepticism is aggravated by the manner in which the composition of the ACC was diluted by the Prime Minister as early as July 2014 by restricting the number of members in the committee to the Prime Minister (also the chairperson) and the Home Minister. Before July 2014, the Minister in-charge of the Ministry to which appointments were to be made was also part of the ACC. “The say of the concerned Ministries as well as the detail in their inputs were reduced significantly by this change in the constitution of the ACC,” a retired Defence Ministry official pointed out to Frontline.

A former colonel opined that the Prime Minister had often exhibited a penchant for intervention in the functioning of different Ministries and departments, grievously overturning norms and traditions, in order to advance his interests, both personal and political. “General Rawat is from Uttarakhand, which is expected to have Assembly elections in 2017. I am sure Modi will try and make use of this elevation as an election issue in the days to come,” he said.

The dilution of systems of governance and the overturning of administrative norms and tradition has not been restricted to the ACC. In fact, early in his tenure itself Modi had taken a series of steps in this direction. Even before meddling with the composition of the ACC in July 2014, the Prime Minister had effected a series of measures in relation to standing committees of the Cabinet and Cabinet committees. In June 2014, less than a month after being sworn in, Modi dispensed with four standing committees of the Cabinet—on Management of Natural Calamities, Prices, Unique Identification Authority of India-related issues, and World Trade Organisation Matters—and reconstituted crucial Cabinet committees, including those on Security, Political Affairs, Economic Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs.

Concentration of power

Evidently, the purpose of these changes was to bring these key sectors under bureaucrats, who could be forced to report directly to the Prime Minister, or the PMO. In other words, reduce the say and influence of other politicians in the BJP as well as the ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in these crucial areas.

Thus, it was announced that the functions of the Cabinet Committee on Management of Natural Calamities would be handed over, whenever natural calamities occur, to a committee under the Cabinet Secretary. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs was directed to take over the functions of the Cabinet Committee on Prices and the Cabinet Committee on World Trade Organisation Matters whenever necessary. The committee on UIDAI issues was also brought under the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. These measures were preceded by the abolition of 30 empowered groups of Ministers and GoMs that existed at the end of the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

All this was professedly done to further the cause of “minimum government, maximum governance”, a slogan coined by Modi. But what it actually did was to topple the premise of governance founded on “collective responsibility of Cabinet Ministers” and push it into a presidential form of government where a singular authority guides the course of governance and dictates terms. “Keep me in the loop on your functioning and approach me to get guidance” was Modi’s refrain in the interactions he had with groups of bureaucrats. There were also manoeuvres with individual bureaucrats and selected groups in order to build a direct access-control regime.

A case of harassment

The other side of these efforts was the harassment of select bureaucrats, once again to pursue vested interests. A case in point is that of Sanjiv Chaturvedi, a Haryana cadre Indian Forest Service officer. Chaturvedi was being monitored by Modi’s PMO, and documents obtained through Right to Information (RTI) have laid this bare. This monitoring also led to his being repeatedly denied a legitimate posting. By all indications, Chaturvedi’s inclination to expose corruption was the reason for the harassment. This is a dominant trait that Chaturvedi has displayed since his entry into service in 1995. In fact, he had earned a name for himself as a crusader against corruption in a short span of time in the various departments he was posted in. These included the Forest Department and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), where he was Chief Vigilance Officer (CVO) in the 2012-14 period. Chaturvedi had initiated several investigations during his tenure as CVO at the premier hospital. These included cases against officials who went on unexplained foreign trips on government expense and against a particular official who apparently had his pet dog operated upon at the AIIMS cancer centre.

Chaturvedi was the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2015 for emergent leadership. The award citation stated that Chaturvedi’s “exemplary integrity, courage and tenacity in uncompromisingly exposing and painstakingly investigating corruption in public office, and his resolute crafting of program and system improvements to ensure that government honourably serves the people of India” were noteworthy. On account of this crusading trait, he had created many enemies among both officials and the political class across parties. Union Minister J.P. Nadda, too, had taken up some of the complaints against Chaturvedi raised by aggrieved persons. His interventions started in 2013, when the UPA was in power at the Centre and he himself was a Member of Parliament.

BJP leaders, including Arun Jaitley, termed these actions of Nadda as routine and legitimate. However, after the Modi-led BJP came to power in May 2014, the interventions of Nadda and other interested people in the BJP became more than routine and extraordinary. So much so, the special interest was such that the Prime Minister himself was tracking Chaturvedi’s progress in the bureaucracy.

This much comes through unambiguously in the RTI documents relating to Chaturvedi’s performance in government service. Among the documents obtained through RTI is a letter dated August 23, 2014, written by Lov Verma, then Secretary in the Department of Health and Family Welfare, to P.K. Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. It stated: “The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India had a discussion with the Hon’ble Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare regarding the relieving of additional charge of CVO AIIMS, New Delhi, from Shri Sanjiv Chaturvedi, DS, AIIMS, New Delhi. A detailed note in this regard is submitted for the perusal of the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India.” The Health Minister at that time was Harsh Vardhan, and Nadda replaced him in November 2014. What the letter unravels is the level to which Modi’s monitoring can descend, both at the personal and official levels.

“It is indeed strange that the Prime Minister himself would be interested in inspecting the relieving of a Deputy Secretary-level officer,” said a senior bureaucrat, though he does not believe that the Prime Minister or Harsh Vardhan would have been doing this to protect the corrupt exposed by Chaturvedi.

However, some others, including Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have alleged that the monitoring and harassment of the upright officer is with the sole objective of appeasing the corrupt. Kejriwal’s request to the Centre to get the services of Chaturvedi as officer on special duty (OSD) is pending with the Union government since February 2015. He had said that if the Delhi government obtained Chaturvedi’s services, he would be made in charge of the State government’s anti-corruption branch. The Centre has not acceded to the request, and is evidently putting bureaucratic hurdles in the clearance of related files. After he was removed as AIIMS CVO in 2014, Chaturvedi opted for a transfer to the Uttarakhand cadre. Since then he has got neither a posting of his choice nor the clearance to accept the Delhi government’s offer, principally because the ACC has consistently denied him permission to move from Uttarakhand to Delhi. The Uttarakhand government, too, has taken a blow hot, blow cold approach in relation to his transfer, adopting contradictory positions at different junctures. The reasons for this flip-flop are, to put it mildly, inexplicable and bewildering. In the process, Chaturvedi is embroiled in one legal issue after another, which acquire newer and nuanced dimensions from time to time.

It is not just harassment and discomfort that the monitoring from the Prime Minister and the PMO brings. At the other end of the spectrum is Ajay Yadav, an IAS officer who could move from the Tamil Nadu cadre to Uttar Pradesh despite the fact that he had not completed the mandatory nine years’ service in the existing cadre. Yadav had completed only five years in service and his application for transfer was rejected twice by the Department of Personnel. However, in spite of that he received the transfer on October 28, 2015. It was approved “for a period of three years on personal grounds, in relaxation of policy, as a special case.” Significantly, Ajay Yadav is the son-in-law of Shivpal Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh. The AAP leadership, including Kejriwal, and others raised a hue and cry over Ajay Yadav’s transfer, but that by itself has not helped Chaturvedi’s case.

At the end of it all, what this underscored was the overwhelming powers of the Modi-led PMO and its special skills of monitoring leading to opprobrium in some cases and approbation in others. It is a power and skills game that crafted a chain of happenings that included the undermining of the system of Cabinet committees and standing committees—set up to ensure greater decentralisation and assimilation of wider inputs into decision-making—and the desiccation of the functional authority and freedom of leaders in the ruling dispensation. It also includes developing a mechanism of direct reporting and allegiance to Modi by bureaucrats. In short, a dominance project that is well under way over the last two and a half years, and one that will sustain its imperial ways in the days to come.

However, the advancement of this dominance project is not confined to micro and macro political-administrative management measures in governance and government mechanisms. It unfolds at the level of larger politics, too, in the form of proclamations of schemes and programmes. All these come along with the “theatre of celebrity” play that projects the supreme leader as the one and only panacea to the problems faced by the country and its people. Thus, you had the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which has purportedly turned India into a model of cleanliness and civic sanitation; the Jan Dhan Yojana, which has supposedly struck decisive blows for economic empowerment of the marginalised; and now the demonetisation drive, which has professedly wiped India clean of black money.

As any objective audit or assessment of these schemes and programmes would vouchsafe, all these are high on rhetoric and self-aggrandisement and short on real results. Indeed, these much-vaunted programmes and pronouncements represent “the cult of action for action’s sake”, which the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco identified as one of the “eternal” features of fascism. Eco delineates this point, saying fascists believe that “action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection” since “thinking is a form of emasculation”. That fits many facets of the dominance game of the Modi regime, including the recent demonetisation that is charting a monumentally disastrous path, causing economic and social havoc in the everyday lives of people.