It was instructive to monitor the Twitter postings last Tuesday afternoon of people who are often understood to be in the know of things in India — I mean the stalwarts of the media. The Prime Minister’s Office had stated there would be a special announcement in the late afternoon and there was — quite understandably — some frenzied speculation over what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had up his sleeve. The emerging consensus was that the government was likely to make an announcement on the “one rank, one pension” demand of ex-servicemen that has been left unresolved for years.
This was by no means a wild speculation and was an intelligent extrapolation of trends. However, it proved wildly off the mark as the Prime Minister, flanked by the Naga leader Thuingaleng Muivah, home minister Rajnath Singh and national security adviser Ajit Doval, made an announcement of a political understanding that would enable the NSCN (I-M) to join the political mainstream and, hopefully, put an end to the low-intensity insurgency in Nagaland and at least two neighbouring states.
The efficacy of the understanding, particularly the details of how the government and the rebels had coped with the seemingly intractable Greater Nagaland issue, must necessarily await the release of further details. However, the mere fact that the media, as indeed the rest of the political class, were taken entirely by surprise is revealing. It suggests that there is a process of quiet governance that has absolutely nothing to do with the concerns that make up the headlines in the media or are the subject matter of shrill TV debates.
Viewed through the prism of pragmatism, this separation of governance from the headlines may not be an unwelcome development. In the past two decades, but particularly in the 10 years of Manmohan Singh’s government, the public articulation of the contradictory pulls and pressures of decision-making often stymied the process of governance. From mischievous bureaucrats who engaged in selective leaks to derail some proposal that went against their judgment to over-politicised corporate houses that funded and even organised a lucrative trade in government files, the process of governance was unendingly subverted.
The media, both intentionally and occasionally unknowingly, played a major role in the subversion. But an equal responsibility must be laid at the door of politicians that played the media game for their own ends — remember the spats involving P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh and the PMO, and the unending tensions between the PMO and Sonia Gandhi’s coterie.
Arguably, conflicts between colleagues and intra-bureaucratic turf wars are a feature of all governments. In recent weeks there was the much-publicised divergence of views between the home ministry and the information and broadcasting ministry over restrictions on the right of “tainted” promoters to bid for radio licences — a dispute that was finally settled by the Supreme Court. However, with extremely rare exceptions, there is a significant difference in the way conflicting impulses in the decision-making process have been handled by the two dispensations.
Not being a popularly elected Prime Minister and hamstrung by the awkward hierarchical relationship between his office and the 10, Janpath establishment, Dr Manmohan Singh saw himself as a player rather than the captain of the team. Consequently, issues that demanded a categorical prime ministerial judgment were often left unresolved and passed on to so-called empowered committees.
It is a feature of the new style of governance that the institution of empowered committees that Mr Pranab Mukherjee was overburdened with in his last years as a Cabinet minister have fallen into complete disfavour. Instead, a Prime Minister, blessed with a popular mandate to govern for five years, has made the business of governance far more result oriented. In the economic sphere, for example, almost each Cabinet meeting has resulted in a plethora of executive orders that — while deemed unworthy of headlines and TV debates — has altered the architecture of doing business in India. This has been the case with defence also where the larger objective of “Make in India” has been pragmatically juxtaposed with the pressing needs of the armed forces for weapons upgradation. The manner in which the Rafale aircraft deal was made workable during Mr Modi’s trip to France earlier this year was a prime example of this new style of governance.
At the same time it is undeniable that the Modi government has been at the receiving end of adverse headlines that have been attributed (depending on political inclinations) to either his so-called imperiousness or a poor communications strategy. Without going into the question of whether or not Mr Modi has an allergy to the mainstream (particularly English-language) media, I would suggest that there is an additional area of concern: the role of Parliament.
The Congress may have declared war on Mr Modi and signalled its unflinching determination to ensure that there are roadblocks all along the government’s path, but the floor managers of the party have not been very successful in overcoming these. Maybe the problem of a dysfunctional Parliament won’t go away until the numbers in the Rajya Sabha are more evenly balanced after 2016. If so, Mr Modi’s dependence on executive decisions and the willingness of state governments to improve the quality of governance will become more paramount.
The larger political challenges will, however, need to be simultaneously addressed. Most stakeholders in both government and business understand that the fruits of the Modi government’s initiatives will not start being visible on the ground before January 2016 at the earliest. If the Goods and Services Tax mechanism is not made operational by April 2016, the growth process will also suffer a process of needless delay. The question is, how will the narrative in the interregnum be shaped? The tale of unending parliamentary disruption and media negativism is having an effect on the morale of a country that had geared itself up for better days.
Traditionally, Mr Modi has been uncaring about extraneous noises and has preferred to devote himself single-mindedly to his responsibilities. This austere stoicism is calculated to pay dividends in the long run but the disruption in the short-term has to be addressed. The Prime Minister will have to take a short break from the serious business of governance to regain the political initiative. A political slide, after all, will make it that much more difficult to put India back on track.
The writer is a senior journalist