But the government will do better by disempowering carriers of legacy, making the most of big events and creating a trustworthy national broadcaster
Reports of changes brought about by the NDA Government in managing its ministries and departments are arriving by the dozen every day, much as economists may be still ruing the fact that the government missed the opportunity to announce big-ticket reforms in the Union Budget 2014-15. The print media appears appreciative — if not impressed — but television news channels couldn’t care less. Prime Minister Modi leads the pack with diplomatic coups and a welcome interest in science and technology and national security. Under various ministries related to infrastructure, projects worth Rs 50,000 crore have been cleared in the last two months, with the hitherto nay-saying Ministry of Environment and Forests learning to behave fast. Inspired by the prime minister’s pep talk with bureaucrats and his work as a hard taskmaster, Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Rural Development Nitin Gadkari, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar and Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu have raided their offices and pulled up absentees. Javadekar, the most radical of the lot, has gone to the extent of announcing his intention to wind up his ministry and the Press Information Bureau — a Soviet Telegraph Agency-like concept imposed on the country and sustained by successive Nehruvian governments — and even Prasar Bharati, which was meant to make national broadcaster Doordarshan a credible news medium. The Ministry of Transportation is switching to EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) mode from the PPP (public-private partnership) style to boost road construction targeted to achieve the rate of 30 km a day. Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj has ensured the return of nurses from Kerala stuck in the Iraqi civil war; she continues to be the best orator and debater in Parliament. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is on his way to officiating over judicial reforms by changing the collegium system of selecting Supreme Court and High Court judges. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan is sprucing up his departments using his own expertise as a medical practitioner. Even Smriti Irani, scoffed at for her lack of university degrees, neatly avoided getting embroiled in the University Grants Commission-versus-University of Delhi debate over the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme, which no student wanted since it was suddenly introduced in the varsity. This commentary cannot cover the work being done in all ministries for want of space, but that every portfolio holder is working tirelessly is undeniable. The focus of this government is clearly on making a laggard administration work.
However, that this government is falling far short of the huge expectations it had generated due to the innovative ideas of governance Modi used to talk about during the election campaign goes without saying. It is difficult to believe that the then prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party thought these were unfeasible projects and yet sold them to the people to win votes. He is known to have a high-calibre team of experts that does all requisite homework before he faces the crowd with oratory. Hence, the needle of suspicion points at two sets of people in this government, rather three. The first set comprises ministers of the philosophical vintage of Atal Bihari Vajpayee — BJP’s Jawaharlal Nehru. The second are members of the party who have unofficially wined and dined with their predecessors in the Congress and face allegations of sharing perks of power with brokers of the UPA Government. The third comprises the inertia-prone bureaucracy, which may now be working for 8 hours a day no doubt, but which still suffers from stone-era age mentality shorn of ideas. This section is capable of embarrassing even the shrewdest politicians in the Modi stable. Take for instance the unnecessary indictment of Gen VK Singh by Arun Jaitley’s Ministry of Defence through an affidavit submitted in court. Also consider the monotonous Budget speech Jaitley delivered as the Finance Minister.
Shrewdness can, of course, change to less negative smartness. The way most BJP politicians switched from the waning faction to the waxing one at opportune moments, their ministers may well bring in a paradigm shift in administration as well as pronouncements, without which the feeling that the country is being run better by the BJP than by the Congress will not be palpable for the people. They must also be wary of Modi’s Gujarat record: He is not known to suffer fools.
Till then, failure in public perception management means disaster at elections lined up in the coming months. Along with alteration in the mindset of archaic administrators, the business of making up people’s minds will be determined by thought managers on television and social media. There, an inspiring speech by the prime minister from Red Fort on Independence Day is being expected. Let him be under no compulsion to respond daily to television anchors frothing at the mouth. In the long term, Javadekar will do better by trying to create a BBC-like institution run on public money rather than winding up his ministry and all departments under it. It will be less under the commercial compulsion of shoring up TRP points by yelling on screen over non-issues. If such a channel is found creditworthy, the social media will lap up links to its reports, analyses and debates. Seasoned politicians need not be told that, in politics, it is not enough to do well; one must appear to be doing well.