Modi is not a philosopher, Mr Gupta. He is the Prime Minister

Philosophers have the luxury and liberty to dwell in the realm of ideas. It is different for the Prime Minister. When it comes to governance, the PM's ideas are only as good as their effective execution.

 |  9-minute read |   10-06-2020
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If Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a philosopher, then what Shekhar Gupta wrote about him in his column published in The Print last week may have been a few inches closer to the truth. But the reality is, Modi is not a philosopher. He is a politician — a rather pragmatic one at that — and also the Prime Minister of a gigantic country facing grave challenges. In the Prime Minister's own words, his government is responsible for the wellbeing of 1.3 billion people.

Philosophers may have the luxury and liberty to dwell in the realm of ideas. It's possible that the implementation of those ideas or considerations of how realistic and practical they are, may not always necessarily be their cup of tea. If the ideas get implemented well, great! If they don't, it's still fine as long as the theory has sound foundations. You still will be hailed as a good, if not a great, philosopher because your work has achieved the primary objective of compelling the mind to think and engage with things beyond the mundane.

But these rules don't apply to politicians.

Their karmabhoomi is not the world of lofty ideas, but the quagmire of everyday realities. They fight their battles on a ground different than the philosophers'. When it comes to governance, their ideas are only as good as their effective execution. For instance, there is no virtue in having just the idea of elevating people out of poverty, ushering economic growth and guaranteeing justice for all, if these ideas don't translate into effective implementation.

Police and judicial reforms are great ideas. Since Independence, tens of committees have given their reports and recommendations on them. But what good are these ideas when much of them were never implemented by successive governments?

And, this is where Shekhar Gupta got his analysis wrong.

main_narendra-modi_r_061020070127.jpgModi is not a philosopher. He is a politician — a rather pragmatic one at that. (Photo: Reuters)

In his latest 'National Interest' column titled 'Why Modi doesn't feature in a list of India's reformist Prime Ministers', Gupta's single-point conclusion is: Modi does not feature in this list because his bureaucrats are incompetent, too status quoist and devoid of any zeal for reforms.

In his words, despite six years of being India's Prime Minister, Modi has failed to carry out major economic reforms "because his bureaucrats lack the motivation to push reforms and are beginning to enjoy unbridled power (thanks to the lockdown)".

Gupta opens his column with three questions:

1) Is Modi an economic reformer?

2) Where would he rank in the list of India's reformists: PV Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

3) How successful is he in implementing his reformist ideas?

Analysing the Prime Minister's six-year performance, Gupta concludes that Modi isn't a reformer (hence, the second question becomes irrelevant); and the reason why Modi has failed on this front, Gupta says, is not because of his own shortcomings, but because of his bureaucrats.

He argues that one would have to be "nuts" or a "Naxal" to believe that Modi is incapable of bringing major economic reforms. To justify the Prime Minister's decisiveness, he forwards demonetisation and the decision of implementing a nationwide lockdown (with a deadline of just four hours) as evidence.

"Why has he, then, been struggling so badly in converting his economic reform ideas into reality?" Gupta asks. He answers it himself, saying Modi has failed to become a reformer because he isn't blessed with the same quality of bureaucrats that his predecessors (Rao, Vajpayee and Singh) had.

"There is a pattern to the Modi government's economic decisions," Gupta writes. "The follow-up, the design of the plan, implementation takes too long. And by the time it is done, it is such a jumble of bureaucratese that it looks more like an overcooked spaghetti bowl."

Taking a leaf out of George Fernandes's vocabulary, he terms this bureaucratic oscillation of reform ideas as "idling in a deadly orbit".

After answering his three questions, Gupta prepares a scoreboard. In it, he awards Modi an 'A+' for ideas and 'C-' for their implementation.

In a nutshell, what Gupta effectively is saying is that Modi is a failed economic reformer. Not because he does not have good ideas, but because the others around him are simply not good enough to implement them.

This line of argument stems from an old theory where politicians (especially the popular and powerful ones) get defended for their failures with the blame being shifted swiftly onto others. The theory runs on the premise that the leader had noble intentions and good ideas, but effective means to implement them weren’t available, and hence the leader is not to be blamed.

The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the basic fact that a leader cannot be allowed to claim credit for things that went right and shift the blame on to someone else when the discussion focuses on setbacks and failures suffered under the very same system. If a leader is hailed for successes, then it is only just and natural for him/her to also shoulder responsibility for failure.

Of all people, analysts should be aware of this.

In Gupta's column, the focus is on Modi. But the same applies to others too. For instance, while the Congress credits Rahul Gandhi for winning assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and giving a 'spirited' fight in Gujarat, it cannot be allowed to shift the blame on to state units for the disasters and routs the party suffered in rest of India under his leadership or the lack of it. His reign over the party was so bad that he lost his own citadel of Amethi in 2019, with the Congress winning just one of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Remember when during Manmohan Singh's tenure, his supporters would often argue along the lines that he is honest and not at fault, but is helpless because he is 'remote-controlled' from 10, Janpath, and is surrounded by ministers who have ulterior motives? Irrespective of his personal integrity and his alleged 'helplessness', the unshakable fact remained that he was India's Prime Minister and hence responsible for the good, the bad and the evil during his tenure.

Leaders and their followers will have an inherent bias and may often see an 'invisible hand(s)' behind their failures. But objective analysts must not be blinded to this reality. 

By pinning the entire blame on the bureaucracy for lack of economic reforms under PM Modi, Shekhar Gupta's column fails to ask who was (and is) responsible for the bureaucracy's inefficiency.

Is leadership and governance only about giving ideas or does it also include ensuring that those ideas get implemented too? A leader with ideas is great, but isn't it also true that one of the key leadership traits is to cultivate new leaders and build a strong team that can convert ideas into executable plans and policies on the ground?

Modi won a historic mandate in 2014, and in 2019 he improved it further. Unlike the "reformist" Prime Ministers — Rao, Vajpayee and Singh — he does not face the challenges of running a coalition government. He also enjoys complete loyalty and command over his own party and handpicks members of the Union cabinet. He was personally involved in putting an end to red-tapism in his ministries. When he became PM in 2014, the first ordinance that his government promulgated immediately was to amend service rules so that a bureaucrat of his choice could be appointed his principal secretary (it was perfectly within his right to do so and showed he meant business).

Since his first year as the Prime Minister, Modi has repeatedly stressed that his government is committed to ending red-tapism created due to layers of the bureaucratic web. His ministers don't fail to echo the catchphrase 'minimum government, maximum governance', aimed at cultivating an image that the government wants to put an end to, what Shekhar Gupta (borrowing George Fernandes's words) calls a "deadly orbit" of bureaucracy.

Thus, after six years of being in power, if Modi has failed to usher economic reforms (as Gupta argues in his own analysis), why should all the blame be put upon the civil servants?

Yes, they do share the blame. But Modi wasn't a novice when he became Prime Minister in 2014. He came along with a rich experience of governing an industrial state like Gujarat for 14 years at a stretch. One would assume that given this vast experience as chief minister, he was well aware of how the Indian bureaucracy works.

Besides this, in his analysis, Shekhar Gupta gives Modi an 'A+' for economic reform ideas. Two of the biggest economic reforms attempted in contemporary Indian history — demonetisation and GST — were during Modi's tenure. Gupta says demonetisation was an example of being "decisive", but he doesn't say anything about its fallouts. Similarly, he cites the lockdown announcement that came with a four-hour notice as another example of being decisive. But he doesn't say what this "decisive" action resulted in.

The collective experience of demonetisation, GST implementation and now the utter mismanagement during the lockdown, speak loud that merely having good ideas does little good to governance.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying a Prime Minister should not be full of ideas. It is actually a terrific thing to happen. Some ideas may work, some may not. That is life's reality. But the worth of ideas (especially in regards to governance) is of value when they are effectively implemented.

It may be somewhat acceptable for academicians, think tanks and columnists to kindle ideas and get embroiled in discourses. But for those in power and responsible for people's day-to-day wellbeing, deeper scrutiny of their ideas should ideally be focused more on the quality of their effective implementation than about their philosophical premise.

Also read: How political interference, corruption and outdated procedures have crippled India's bureaucracy

Writer

Mukesh Rawat Mukesh Rawat @mukeshrawat705

A nomadic vagabond by passion, the author is trying to understand things and people that are here, there and in-between. He works with IndiaToday.in.

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