The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine may have achieved new heights for the Bharatiya Janata Party electorally, but it has presided over an unbelievable level of mediocrity on all other fronts. The Modi government’s monumental HR crisis is beginning to show.
From a sagging economy to foot-in-the-mouth ministers to an uninspiring cabinet, the BJP government’s bench-strength is abysmal in most parts, and in the remaining, just about average.
The council of ministers, the various bodies and institutions that have been constituted, or the Modi government’s failure to retain any talent — the effects of which are reflected in the sorry state of the economy – are a clear signal. As India awaits a crucial fix-it Budget in February 2020, the swirling speculation about changing Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman shows that there are just no confidence-building names available.
The Modi government has had to grapple with talent-deficit ever since it came to power at the Centre in 2014. It was forced to assign many portfolios, including some key ones, to novices who ended up under-performing or embarrassing the government. Over the years, one would have expected the Modi-Shah regime to get its act together, groom some in the party ranks or, at least, identify and bring experts from outside the BJP-fold.
But not much has changed even as the Modi government is close to completing eight months in its second term. Its constant struggle to find capable names as ministers, and the raging speculation around the induction of banker K.V. Kamath in the finance ministry show the depth of the crisis.
In his first term, Modi struggled with governance beyond his top four ministers. There was under-performance all around, with some jarring examples too: Smriti Irani, who was new to governance and the minister of human resource development, ensured there was no work and tonnes of bad press. So did Uma Bharati as the Minister of Water Resources.
Ministers across the spectrum — from rural and agriculture to health and education — failed to impress. But a slew of welfare, pro-rural measures that Modi introduced and was personally invested in kept the government going. The sheen and popularity of these schemes, along with effective ground-level implementation, helped mask a lot of Modi government’s poor performance, inexperience and missteps.
The second term, however, has been different. With development-related policies and welfare schemes on the back seat, the economy in a free fall, and focus entirely on jingoism, the lack of talent has become even more pronounced.
Beyond Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal – and to an extent, Prakash Javadekar and Dharmendra Pradhan – very few ministers in the Modi cabinet can boast of good performance or domain expertise. Former diplomat S. Jaishankar’s induction as External Affairs Minister has been the only relief for this government in its second term.
Modi has an uninspiring, uninspired retinue of ministers, who are more eager to please their masters than understand their respective domains, show initiative, and ensure real performance.
Finance Minister Sitharaman has become the face of everything that is wrong with the Indian economy. Ministers of other crucial portfolios like rural development, agriculture, and health are known more for their absence or public statements.
The bigger issue, however, has been that Modi and Amit Shah have failed to make up for the internal talent crunch by retaining those who came from outside. So, anybody with any domain knowledge – Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian, Arvind Panagariya, Urjit Patel, Viral Acharya – chose to walk out of this government; or, put differently, Modi hasn’t quite displayed any ability to appreciate and hold on to talent.
It isn’t just poor performance, but also ill-thought-out statements by those in authority that have exposed the issues affecting the Modi-Shah regime.
Consider this latest incident. V.K. Saraswat, a member of the NITI Aayog and one of India’s top scientists, defended the internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir by audaciously claiming that Kashmiris use the internet only to watch “dirty films”. But Saraswat isn’t the only one to have embarrassed the Modi government.
Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal may know his work, but his disposition and arrogance should be of concern to the BJP’s top brass. His recent and unnecessarily harsh, juvenile statements against Amazon and Flipkart are a case in point.
But this problem with appointments goes beyond the cabinet. In recent times, JNU vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar’s tenure has brought a significant amount of concern along the Modi government’s way.
In the last five-and-a-half years of the Modi government, the BJP’s growing national profile along with its stagnant internal capacity growth has been the most glaring.
Modi and Amit Shah ensured 303 seats for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. They managed to make Modi a larger-than-life phenomenon and succeeded in making Shah seem like a never-seen-before election strategist. The two have been able to make themselves all-powerful. And yet, they have failed miserably in grooming any talent in the government, and, if you look closely, in the party too.
J.P. Nadda isn’t really known as the most charismatic, powerful or popular mass leader. He also doesn’t seem to have an exceptional political brain. And yet, he was appointed the BJP president Monday, at a time when the party isn’t exactly at its best. Perhaps it’s the result of a bench-strength that leaves much to be desired.
Politics is about winning elections. But it is as much about performing once you win the elections. Modi-Shah’s BJP may have excelled in the former, but it has shown frightening levels of mediocrity in the latter. This is quite something for a party that derives its strength from a tentacled body like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — which fancies itself as the world’s biggest talent search company.