During both the first and the last meeting with PM Narendra Modi, I had a view that was at variance with his. On both the occasions he heard me out, he concurred with me on each of these occasions. Yes, Modi was prepared to listen, ready to accept a difference of opinion. And this is the reason why I blame those around him for not presenting their views freely and frankly. There were several occasions when I found that officers with differing perspectives kept quiet or went with the flow. Yes, I did see him get angry on occasions. On one occasion, he gave a dressing down to Chairman, Railway Board, in the presence of other Secretaries. However, it was not on account of a difference of opinion. The poor performance of Railways had irked him.
Contrary to the general impression, Narendra Modi spoke very little during the meeting. His grasp of the issues was phenomenal, and, more often than not, he came up with extremely practical solutions. His long experience as Chief Minister almost always came in handy. I enjoyed a great professional relationship with the PM. However, I was never close to him as was reported first in the Hindustan Times and then in India Today. He always valued my opinion, though we occasionally had disagreements. He did start in right earnest as the Prime Minister, and the economy too seemed to be doing pretty well. Then where and when did it go all wrong? In my understanding, it all changed on the fateful night ofNovember 8, 2016. Demonetisation was announced. Currency notes of Rs 1000 and Rs 500 were demonetised. My first reaction was elation. Working in the state of Uttar Pradesh, I had seen how a corrupt Chief Minister had accumulated cash. It was all so shocking. I thought that such politicians would lose their ill-gotten wealth. However, it was not to be. The mismanagement of the aftermath of demonetisation resulted in all this wealth returning to such people. The real sufferer was the common man. The economy tanked after that, never to recover. Ironically, the National Democratic Alliance went on to win the crucial state election in UP. In a way, it provided political legitimacy to a disastrous economic move. Only posterity will finally determine the damage caused by demonetisation, perhaps a good idea but very poorly executed.
The environment had changed. The last “tea” session of the Secretaries with the PM that I attended epitomised the mood. As per the drill, the Cabinet Secretary made the opening remarks. This was followed by an open session wherein the Secretaries gave their suggestions. Finally, the PM made the concluding speech. As mentioned earlier, this was a unique way of ascertaining opinions and suggestions. It hadworked very well so far. However, on this day, after the Cabinet Secretary spoke, there were no comments/observations from Secretaries for a couple of minutes after the Cabinet Secretary had concluded. There was an unusual silence, reflecting a change in the environment. The PM had to stand up himself and ask the Secretaries to speak. After that, some Secretaries spoke, but the cat was out of the bag. The “free” communication channel appeared to have been frozen.
The government was still doing exceptionally well on many fronts like national highways, rural housing, rural electrification, cooking gas and digital payments. This was paying political dividends. The government was appropriately taking credit for all that was happening. Unfortunately, it also took credit for what it had not done. I remember the Independence Day speech where, amongst the many not-so-correct claims by the PM, was the claim related to the setting up of Project Monitoring Group (PMG) by the NDA government. As I had set up the PMG during the previous government’s tenure, I wondered whether there was a need to make such and many other ‘incorrect’ claims when the government could legitimately claim to have done so very well on many fronts.
As I now witness Narendra Modi from a distance after ceasing to be a civil servant, it makes me wonder why the government is or is not doing what it should or should not be doing:
1. “Sab kuch babu hi karenege. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertilizer ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega. Yeh kaun si badi takat bana kar rakh di humne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain?”
(Will everything be done by the “babu”? Just because they have become IAS, they will run fertilizer plants as well. What sort of huge force have we created? What will we gain by handing the nation to “Babus”?)
The Prime Minister made this statement in Parliament. Why did he do that? Ironically, much of what he said was not even factually correct. In any case, as the Prime Minister of the country, it was he who decided who was doing what at the senior level. Then why complain? His office, the PMO, primarily comprises officers from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS). He was still appointing officers from the IAS to critical posts like the Governor, the Reserve Bank of India. He was never prone to such outbursts in the past. He may not have realised it, but this one statement demoralized many young officers in the field.
2. On every occasion, I met the PM in a meeting or informally, his focus on technology was unwavering. He always emphasised the need for technology to drive the country’s development. Rightly so. Therefore, it is surprising that all Ministries in the Government of India still have not taken even the rudimentary steps towards using technology. Why do we see hard files on the officers’ tables and such files being carried around in the corridors of government offices? Charity has to begin at home, as they say. Someone in the PMO needs to muster the courage to tell the PM that the PMO needs to insist on receiving only digital files. Once this happens, the Ministries will have to digitise all the files. This would be the first but critical step towards using technology to improve governance. It will also help the PM to assess the number of files, many of which relate to appointments at various levels, pending at the PMO.
3. Why are Central Public Sector Undertakings being given step-motherly treatment? Why are they being deprived of regular postings of Chairman and Managing Directors? Why are the posts of other Directors not being filled? Why is money being sucked out of these CPSUs, and they are being pushed to raise expensive loans for their own expansion plans?
4. It is becoming increasingly evident that the Centre and the States are at a ‘war’. Is it necessary? Cooperation with States worked in the coal sector as coal production reached record levels. Goods and Services Tax is another example where the approach of treating states as partners worked. The whole approach was masterminded by none other than the master-strategist, Arun Jaitley. There was a mission to engage with the stakeholders and convey a value proposition. Assessing ground realities constituted valuable input in formulating policies and approaches to resolving issues. This was a game-changer. A ‘connect’ was established with each stakeholder, including the state governments. Why are we not looking at a similar connection with other policies?
5. Why is there no independent evaluation of various programmes? This would help the government assess where things are going wrong and take corrective steps? There is no harm in assessing the ground reality when the government is doing so well on so many fronts.
6. There are competent officers amongst the crop of Secretaries to the Government of India. However, shouldn’t the eco-system be such wherein officers can speak freely and frankly? The spirit that pervaded during 2014-16 (so evident during the quarterly tea sessions hosted by the PM) needs to be revived. The officers will have to be encouraged to speak, and ‘rewarding’ will go beyond allegiance and pliability.
This excerpt from ‘No More a Civil Servant’ by Anil Swarup has been published with permission from Unique Publishers.