“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my Browning (revolver)” - words erroneously attributed to Hermann Göring, but actually written by German playwright and Nazi SS Officer, Hanss Johst. These words could well apply to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his disdain for institutional autonomy.
Modi, exactly at the mid-point of his term, has done away with even the pretence of maintaining institutional niceties.
Consider the following: the latest being the extraordinary super-cession carried out in the Army, and according to sources, at the behest of National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. This is only the second time since Independence that the government has done this. According to authoritative sources, the appointment of Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the new Army chief and Anil Dhasmana as the new head of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) is because they both hail from Pauri Garhwal in Uttarakhand, Doval’s home district. This has been confirmed by top level ministry sources who say that both appointments were pushed hard by Doval because of his long-standing contacts with them.
Imagine the implications for the apolitical Army if generals now need to cultivate political goodwill to be promoted. Agitated officials say it would be the death knell of a proud institution and will also have more worrying fundamental implications on the relationship between a supreme civilian control over the military.
If this wasn’t bad enough, one of the Lieutenant Generals superseded is a Muslim General, PM Hariz. Which has led to audible whispers in the Army and the Ministry of Defense about the first possible Muslim chief being superseded. Lt Gen Tej Sapru (retired) went on record to say, “violation of norms of seniority by the government in the selection of Chief Of Army Staff is a sad day for the armed forces. Not good for the system”.
As is this government’s practice with its terrible track record in communication, we are still to be given an explanation, as was done when Indira Gandhi overlooked General SK Sinha to make General Arun Shridhar Vaidya, the Army chief.
“Does all merit lie in a tiny part of Garhwal or is it kinship and regional bonds?” a senior Army official questions.
The very fact that such questions are being raised is deeply disturbing.
The Army and R&AW are just recent examples of a creeping disdain for institutional safeguards. Modi is naturally authoritarian and all power in now centralised in the prime minister’s office. Take the case of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) where a cipher with long and detailed links to Modi, Urjit Patel was appointed Governor replacing the internationally respected Raghuram Rajan. I can reveal that Patel was only nominally consulted by Modi on the disastrous demonetisation he unleashed on the country.
Sources confirm to me that Modi bypassed the Cabinet committee of Economic Affairs (CCEA), the entire union Cabinet and all top Finance Ministry officials except for his trusted Gujarat cadre revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia. Incredibly, Modi’s advisors in this economic jugglery were a billionaire yoga guru and a Chennai-based RSS leaning chartered accountant. These two were the main members of Modi’s think-tank on demonetisation.
It is clear that Modi does not believe in consultation. Unfortunately for him, we still follow the Westminster model where the PM is the first among equals. Except that Modi towers over his Cabinet of ministers who are kept in sharp check. Cabinet meetings are a silent affair with zero discussion, according to sources. Take the case of demonetisation again: Modi announced it to a silent cabinet and when Nitin Gadkari tried to raise a question he was supposedly told to keep quiet.
If interfering with the Army and the RBI wasn’t bad enough, Modi has been steadily whittling away at the Right to Information Act. Says a senior official with anguish, “it’s like this government has decided to pour lime and salt at the roots of the Act which actually empowered millions of people. Why do they hate the RTI so much?”
RTI commissioners are not appointed. Pending vacancies are not filled up. This is near identical to what has been done to the RBI’s regional boards which are currently being manned by one individual, Nachiket More, since the GOI has allowed all appointments to lapse and not extended tenures till replacements are found.
The Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Bureau of investigation tell an identical story. A stop-gap CBI Director, Rakesh Asthana, has been appointed with the Supreme Court questioning the appointment.
Modi seems to have decided that he is above any institutional checks and balances and officials say this is the most powerful and the largest PMO in India’s history. So far, both the PM and the PMO’s decisions have been ad-hoc and seem to be taken keeping in mind whether they can grab headlines. It’s fair to say that if this ad hoc nature of taking decisions carries on, even Modi’s supporters will soon be praying for the promised “good governance” which seems to have been replaced by “gargantuan governance”.