The news agency ANI reported last week that “PM Modi (is) taking inputs from 50 top officials to revive (the) economy”. The 90-minute meeting would have presentations by finance and commerce ministry officials.
What would such a meeting have looked like? If all 50 got a chance to give an input, and nobody else spoke or asked questions, they would get less than two minutes each. But it’s likely someone would do some sort of introduction and set up the agenda, so it’s unlikely the per person time was two minutes.
Perhaps many of them did not get the opportunity to speak at all. The headline says the PM was looking for inputs from them. What can be communicated in a couple of minutes?
Modi likes this sort of meeting. The first time I met him, with Dileep Padgaonkar (then Times of India editor) and B.G. Varghese (then editor of Hindustan Times), both now dead, was for an Editors Guild report on the 2002 violence.
At that meeting, Modi called in all his secretaries, about two dozen, and perhaps more men sitting in rows to respond to us. There were no ministers. That was and apparently still is Modi’s style.
The question is what happens at such large meetings, for input and what is taken away from them. You would have a series of men saying extremely concise things. And they have to be prescriptive.
The problem is already known: the ANI story says the meeting would find means of a “speedy recovery of the economy, which has witnessed a slowdown in recent quarters”.
What would a two-minute prescription be? It would be something like: “The black money problem can be permanently solved by eliminating high value currency notes. We can force everyone to exchange their notes for smaller denominations and identify the black money sources. This will also end counterfeiting and reduce terrorism.”
Such a presentation would lack nuance and not contain detail. It may or may not get into the problems that could come about because of such an action and it may or may not list the things that could go wrong.
There wouldn’t be enough time. It would merely present some sort of solution, and if the solution looked like a permanent fix and if it sounded original and innovative, it would meet approval.
This is the problem of decision-making done on the basis of short and rapid inputs. But when one asks 50 people to give a series of short and sharp inputs, it’s clear this is the preferred style of functioning.
I have written before about this manner of Modi’s governance. He said in a very fine interview with Madhu Kishwar that he doesn’t read files as he can’t govern through academic studies. He wants people to reduce issues to a two-minute synopsis, which he will digest and then decide.
The problem is that some things can’t be reduced to a short presentation as they are very complex. Many things aren’t clear.
They are grey. Many details aren’t precise because there is not enough information or data. What the possible consequences of decisions will be can’t be understood without very thorough analysis.
Black money was such a matter, China relations another, as is Covid. The effect of a two-month lockdown is also complex. What it could do to the economy should be examined with great care and caution must be used before using a blunt weapon like demonetisation or a total lockdown.
My intent is not to be needlessly critical or contemptuous. What Modi decides affects all of us, and we must see what can be done in the best interest of our nation and its people.
However, the decision-making style must be examined and there’s no running away from that. Let me quote another report, this time from Saturday’s Indian Express: “Manufacturers fret as sudden lockdown hits logistics of production.” The story tells of the problems. At 8 pm on July 13, Karnataka ordered a lockdown from the next day and told industries to shut.
Automobile manufacturers like Toyota told workers to go home, informed vendors and issued a statement. But next day the government sent another circular, saying manufacturers were exempt from the lockdown. But the workers had already gone. One week’s production was lost.
Another problem was supply chains. Auto manufacturing doesn’t happen in one place. It’s only assembled at the main factory, but components come from around the country. There was a lockdown in some states, so even if the main assembly plant was exempt from lockdown or in a state with no lockdown, production would slow or stop.
There are lockdowns in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Assam and elsewhere. There was no coordination to ensure that supply chains are kept going.
Similarly, firms couldn’t access warehouses, with some under lockdown. Another problem was workers who were reluctant to return given the problems they faced during the first lockdown.
These are issues of detail and complexity. They don’t require decision-making. They require governance, meaning the hard work of making the State function efficiently. It is true India has always been a hard place to govern because it is chaotic and anarchic.
The government doesn’t often follow its own rules. It won’t be easy for us to undo the damage done to the economy by the lockdown and the solution won’t come from two-minute presentations.
The writer is a senior journalist and columnist...