In the third year of his term as Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi is shedding the slower than expected pace that characterised many of his initiatives during the first two years. The “Modi” Cabinet unveiled by the mass leader from Gujarat gave off a strong whiff of deja vu to those who were witnessing the ceremony on the grounds of the Presidential Palace on May 26, 2014. Several of its stalwarts were from the era of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had been India’s first BJP Prime Minister, beginning a full term in 1999 but failing to win re-election in 2004. Indeed, Vajpayee took great care to ensure continuity in policy and to give importance to the Congress Party, especially its unquestioned leader, Sonia Gandhi.
Those who had been loyal to India’s longest-serving ruling party mostly remained at their posts, and relatively few jobs were filled by those friendly to the BJP. From the start, many of the Congress sympathisers in the BJP-led government began to silently work for the return of their favourite party. Unlike the BJP, which usually does not bother about the political orientation of the civil service, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi was meticulous in promoting the careers of loyalists and in blighting the careers of those hostile to the party and to the Nehru family. As a consequence, several of the latter suffered, whether the government in power was BJP or Congress. `In the Modi government as well, the Vajpayee Principle of non-interference in the bureaucracy has been followed, so much so that senior civil servants known to be extra close to key politicians during the Manmohan Singh decade ( 2004–2014) were given equally important jobs after the BJP took office. In the Union Finance Ministry, for example, several of the officers were personally close to UPA-era Finance Minister Chidambaram, and helped the minister in his desires for himself, his party, his leader and his family. In the process, the officers themselves became wealthy, being able to afford luxurious homes and education abroad for their children.
In view of Modi’s meticulous avoidance of any symptom of political favouritism, even officers who bent the rules and often broke them to serve UPA-era political masters have been given promotion, for example as Secretaries to Government. Loyalty to the Congress has been high because that party looked after its sympathisers in the bureaucracy. Loyalty to the BJP is low because officials know that party will not give them any special attention for such an attitude. The way in which promotions and posts got decided in India during Congress era was through signals from Congress leadership about Officer X or Y. Now that Modi is PM, a small group of top officials contact another small group of close friends and come to a conclusion about promotions and postings.
The subjective views of a small number of former and present officials is decisive, and all too often, considerations of caste, region and community play a role larger than should be the case Modi refused to go in for a large-scale cleansing of the higher bureacracy even of those elements that in the past pandered to political whims and needs. Similarly, he has apparently rejected the option of taking action against the central leadership of the UPA. Not even a single chargesheet ( nor indeed a First Information Report) has been filed since May 26,2014 against senior functionaries of the UPA known to have amassed huge fortunes and played with the fortunes of the country, even by shortselling the rupee on occasion and misusing the stock exchanges to make and to launder money. Officers who connived at such activities mostly continue in their posts, and ironically,some of the worst offenders have been given responsibilities that relate to precisely responsibilities where misfeasance was committed during 2004–2014.
Within the bureaucracy, which by and large comprises of honest and dedicated officials who have sacrificed much for the country, there has been impatience at Prime Minister Modi’s “Political Hands Off” approach to personnel changes. In the Manmohan Decade, Ministers could get posted officers of their choice, provided these were also approved by the core group around the Congress President. In the Modi dispensation, ministers have to defer to the views of senior civil servants (notably in the Prime Minister’s Office) in the selection of individuals to fill top jobs in their ministries. The worry of those who support Prime Minister Modi is that such forbearance and forgiveness will lead to the government “going the Vajpayee way” of losing its majority in the next general elections, due in 2019. In the US, a change in the top leadership of the country means a wholesale shift of personnel in departments and agencies across the Federal Government. In India, whenever the BJP takes office, such changes are minimal, with result that “fear factor” is missing during such periods, and matters get delayed if not sabotaged altogether.
An example is the Goods & Services Tax bill, which ought to have been passed in early 2015 at the latest, but which became law only a month ago. Had the bill become law much earlier, international perceptions about the economic policies of the Modi government may have been much better than they presently are. Another example has been the signing of the three military “Foundation Agreements” with the US, that on logistics, communications and geospatial enhancing of capacities. Bureaucrats linked to international weapons lobbies delayed the signing of these, as their foreign patrons were worried that the signing of the three agreements would give a head start to US manufacturers in the defence industry in a market that is expected to touch a volume of $ 150 billion within years.
Had any other individual bar Narendra Modi been the Prime Minister, not even a single such agreement would have been signed, but finally on August 30, the logistics agreement has been signed with the US. Of course, arms lobbies are working hard to scuttle the signing of the other two, despite the fact that over the year, there has been a substantial growth in partnering between the US and Indian militaries. It remains to be seen whether the other two will get signed as well during the short period when Barack Obama remains President of the US. Only Prime Minister Modi’s intervention can ensure that the weapons lobbies so powerful in India fail in their bid to keep the India-US relationship from getting formalised through written agreements.