It was Arun Shourie who famously said “no one can read the mind of Narendra Modi”. This was in the context of Modi's “coronation” in 2014. Shourie’s words turned out to be prophetic. But, he may not have bargained for being a casualty of his own predictions. His excitement was palpable as he hopped from one studio to another holding forth on what to expect from Narendra Modi and he looked supremely confident of finding a place in Modi's ‘A’ Team. The rest, of course, is history. And, it did not require any soothsayer to foretell that he would become one of Modi’s worst critics in the days to come.
PM Modi's Cabinet when he took oath in 2019. (File photo: Reuters)
So, when rumours are rife about a Cabinet reshuffle, it would be foolhardy to make a wager on probable new entrants or exits. Already, speculation regarding the date of announcement has come a cropper. Most BJP watchers were almost certain that the list would be out over the weekend. But, four days have passed and still no signs of its coming. Some enterprising journalists have found out that the President will be out of the Capital till June 29. So, they are assuming there cannot be a swearing-in before June 30. But, again with Narendra Modi, one can never tell.
Under the circumstances, one can at best muster the courage to put down a wishlist but without any illusion of anyone taking note of an op-Ed writer’s fantasies. Let us start with Narendra Modi’s first Cabinet formation — where it belied expectations, disappointment, hits and misses. First, going by Modi’s favourite maxim — “Minimum government, maximum governance” — one hoped to see a lean Cabinet. There were also talks of clubbing some portfolios to promote synergy. For example, it was felt that Railways, Highways and Shipping can be merged to take advantage of synergies. There was a buzz in the grapevine about the induction of technocrats and professionals — with names of a few bankers and economists making the rounds. But, the final outcome was somewhat underwhelming. It was at best, to use an expression from PV Narasimha Rao’s term - “change with continuity”. Surprises, if any at all, was in the selection of key bureaucrats — Nripendra Mishra, who was brought back from retirement to be made the Principal Secretary in the PMO and Ajit Doval as NSA.
What was clear though in the selections of names was the premium Narendra Modi placed on keeping sensitive portfolios above controversy. This was evident, for example, in his asking Arun Jaitley to hold the dual charge of the Defence Ministry till Manohar Parrikar agreed to move from Goa to Delhi. However, even then the talent deficit and lack of bench strength were glaring. It became more acute with the demise of Parrikar, Sushma Swaraj, Ananth Kumar and Jaitley. Suresh Prabhu — one of the few professionals in the Cabinet — became a victim of repeated rail mishaps. Venkaiah Naidu’s elevation as Vice-President aggravated the government’s deficiency in floor-management capabilities.
Attrition is natural in any system or organisation. But, it becomes a matter of concern when there is no talent pipeline for replenishment. It leads to overdependence on existing resources and centralisation of the decision process. This ultimately puts more pressure on the leader. And, no matter how efficient and energetic a person might be, it is proven, stress affects human performance. It can cause errors of judgement and mistakes in execution. In the case of Narendra Modi, he has the additional load of electioneering. Such 24/7 high-pressure working is bound to stretch.
Dispassionate observers think this is what ails Team Modi at present. Covid-19 has changed the landscape for good. Old scripts and road-maps will not work anymore. Yet, neither governance nor politics can wait. Going forward, the next three years will put major demands on Narendra Modi in electioneering. This should not be seen as electoral politics alone (though the opposition may like to keep him grounded with other crises) - because the political stability of the government is critical for taking bold decisions and carrying out reforms. Therefore, PM Modi has to free his bandwidth for managing on multiple fronts.
Cabinet rejig is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to reorganise his team and reinvent the working style of the Modi Government 2.1. In this regard, there have been two significant reports. First, is the performance review he has been conducting with his council of ministers. The second was the proposal to engage an international human resources consulting firm to do a competency mapping of the bureaucracy. A similar exercise may be useful for the Cabinet to identify competency gaps and look at covering them by the lateral entry of subject-matter experts. Top of mind, there may be opportunities in areas of Finance, Law, Health, IT, Science and Education among others.
However, unlike say in the United States, professionals are generally inexperienced at handling the bureaucracy — who have an indispensable role in translating ideas and policy into action. As we have seen in Narendra Modi’s first term, some of the best-laid plans, such as GST, were waylaid by the botched-up implementation. In fact, this has been a handicap for many first-time Ministers in the Modi Cabinet. To overcome this drawback, the newcomers can be provided cover by more seasoned ministers like Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh and by moving some, current or former, Chief Ministers to the Centre. Of course, the stalwarts would have to be allowed greater room to play — autonomy and empowerment. Only then can they meaningfully support the PM.
Therefore, this could be the time for the Prime Minister to experiment with the original idea of creating clusters of portfolios under senior ministers — who would be the first among equals — either through GOMs or some super Ministries.
In an age of disruption, the government too needs radical change. Whatever be the model — old formulae will not work in a hyper-complex world. And, time is running out for reforms.