Narendra Modi is striving for a tectonic change in govt’s functioning and image; engineering this won’t be easy

  • The prime minister has the reputation of a workaholic. He is known to keep hard and long hours and lead an ascetic, frugal lifestyle.

  • Ministers are required to be in duty for two hours daily in both Houses of Parliament when the House in session.

  • The Prime Minister’s Office has reportedly set ambitious targets for the ministries bearing different time frames.

In his first speech since the election results rolled out in May 2019, while addressing a gathering of party workers at the BJP headquarters, Narendra Modi had said that voters who had overwhelmingly reposed their faith in NDA would be in no mood to forgive if the government fails to deliver.

Modi is evidently mindful of the fact that some structural and legacy issues that he had to grapple with in his first stint as prime minister would no longer serve as excuses for non-performance in his second stint. Blaming the Congress for banking sector woes and corruption, for instance, would have been acceptable in 2014 but not in 2019.

But running a government isn’t playing a tennis match. At the Centre Court in Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Simona Halep or for that matter any competing player was fighting his or her own battle. Though professional tennis players have a team at their disposal, the court still remains a lonely arena where you are fighting your opponent as much as your own failings.

Not so running a government, which, to extend the sporting analogy, is akin to a game of football where each player must play her part for it to be won. The problem facing Modi is that while he has an obsessive work ethic, his team members and the bureaucracy are used to a decade-old culture of laxity that has permeated every blood vessel of the vast entity called ‘government’, and it isn’t easy to reverse this habit.

The prime minister has the reputation of a workaholic. He is known to keep hard and long hours and lead an ascetic, frugal lifestyle. He has apparently never taken a vacation or stopped working due to sickness. It is not easy to adjust with such a boss.

 Narendra Modi is striving for a tectonic change in govt’s functioning and image; engineering this won’t be easy

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

A 2014 article in The Telegraph related amusing details on how the cogs of administration in NDA 1 were struggling to cope up with the pressure in Modi’s timetable. Apart from a few ministers such as Nitin Gadkari, Smriti Irani, Nirmala Sitharaman and Venkaiah Naidu, most ministers had been straining to keep up with Modi’s punishing schedule that began at 6 am. The PM “is on the phone from seven to eight and gets ready for work by nine. His day ends at midnight. The unspoken diktat is that his officials and ministers follow a similar routine.”

In his second stint, Modi seems to be stressing on bringing about a shift in habit — always the toughest change to engineer. Tuesday’s BJP parliamentary party meeting reportedly saw the prime minister talk tough on truant ministers who were found missing in Parliament duty despite being named on the roster.

Ministers are required to be in duty for two hours daily in both Houses of Parliament when the House in session, and Modi has reportedly asked Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi to give him a list of bunking ministers. According to The Economic Times, which quoted some MPs present at Tuesday’s meeting, Modi said: “Ministers are not present in the House during their roster duty”… They “send a letter asking that they be excused as they are busy with some other work. I know how to set right such ministers.”

The other interesting point worth noting from the meeting is Modi’s insistence to the party’s first-time MPs that they should create a good first impression in their respective constituencies, because, according to the PM, “first impression is the last impression”. The MPs have been asked to regularly visit their constituencies, put in place an earnest “feedback mechanism”, and create an impression that they are “approachable”. These apparently must be done within the first few months of their getting elected. They have also been encouraged to engage with apolitical professionals such as doctors and engineers.

Modi has also asked MPs to take up a “mission” — which could be a social or humanitarian cause — apart from their regular schedule and work towards achieving that goal, such as eradicating TB by 2025 in India against a global target of 2030.

The Prime Minister’s Office has reportedly set ambitious targets for the ministries bearing different time frames. The stress is on completing these targets within the deadline, creating and constantly feeding a real-time data mechanism so that the electorate is aware of the extent to which poll promises are being met.

A report in India Today says a 100-day target that kicked off on 5 July (to be completed within 15 October) includes, among other things, “filling up of 300,000 vacancies in institutes of higher education, efficient grievance redressal system and launching of national e-services delivery assessment.”

The report notes that 167 targets have been identified — some within 100 days, a year, mid-term or five-year — and secretaries of various ministries have been notified by the PMO. A “dashboard” has been proposed that would serve as a progress report in various fields such as road-laying and implementation of various central schemes.

Modi’s purpose is quite possibly dual. At one level, creating and working on target areas will help him achieve the ambitious goals that he has set for himself. The prime minister would be aware that a pro-incumbency vote — which the 2019 verdict certainly was — increases manifold his responsibility and job of making India a true global power that is economically prosperous and inclusive. These long-term agendas need effective short-term delivery mechanisms. Accumulation of these smaller targets eventually create an enabling atmosphere for India’s rise.

Modi’s second motive behind cracking the whip and putting pressure on his Cabinet and bureaucracy is to improve a deep-seated perception about the government and its workers that they are laggards, inefficient, obstructionists and plain lazy. He has, apart from the obvious reasons, a deep-seated motive. Modi’s effort has always been to turn some of the central schemes such as “Swachh Bharat” into a “mass movement”.

He has recently turned focus on conservation of water. Clean and potable water is becoming scarce as 65 percent of India’s reservoirs are running dry. These schemes can turn into mass movements with participation of people, and that could only happen if people feel themselves to be stakeholders in the government. Shedding an image of being lazy and inefficient would certainly help.

Updated Date: Jul 17, 2019 21:29:40 IST