What is the Modi model of governance?

Just as there is no Modi model of economics, there isn't any Modi model of governance, if by model we mean something original that can be replicated.

Some years ago, in late 2002, a few months after the riots and a year after he had become chief minister, I visited Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar. On my flight returning to Mumbai, I was next to a middle-aged man who was interested in the device I was fiddling with, an iPod, which was almost unknown then.

We got talking and it turned out he was an IAS officer, one of the secretaries in the Gujarat government. He asked what had brought me to Gandhinagar. When I told him it was to meet the chief minister, he laughed: "My boss (the minister) hasn't had a meeting with Modi in six months," he said. That was the first time it struck me that Modi was running a fairly autocratic administration.

Narendra Modi. Agencies.

Narendra Modi. Agencies.

The strongly individualistic style of Modi's performance, in which he is uninterested in and disregarding of the views of others, is thought to be his key asset in governance. The belief is that he brings something entirely new to government and that explains his success. I have been speaking to a few officers who are serving or have served at the highest levels in Gujarat's bureaucracy recently. I wanted to learn from them what was unique about Modi's government.

To know this, we must look first at how the old system works, in Gujarat and elsewhere. The British system of administration has given India a powerful, non-elected bureaucracy. In it, the political system makes decisions, in which it is assisted by the higher bureaucracy, meaning IAS officers. Implementation is done entirely by the bureaucracy, and this has led to the problem we refer to as red-tape.

In taking decisions, officers in Gujarat told me, there was usually a free exchange of ideas in the time before Modi. Some named Chimanbhai Patel as the chief minister who had run the best and most effective administration. The Cabinet met and agendas were fully discussed.

Once the decision was taken (for instance, to privatise the construction of some state highways), the bureaucrats prepared a note on the issues relating to execution. From the lowest rungs of those working on the field, the note progressed up, till it was cleared, after being analysed at each level. What is happening under Modi in Gujarat is that this consultation has ended. Modi decides something, and instructs the bureaucracy to implement it.

Was this unique to Gujarat, I asked the officers. In reply they said that such things happened in many states. However, in no state was the higher bureaucracy as totally disregarded as in Gujarat, they said. What had made this possible, I asked. It was easy for any chief minister to be autocratic, they said, because decision making and implementation were segregated so clearly. But only Modi has chosen to do this to the full extent. So what did the bureaucrats think of this? Some of them thought that this disregard for their view was something they had to live with. They were not happy at their view being dismissed, but they would carry on.

Some of them had sided with Modi, and profited in the way that IAS officers close to the elected officials do. This seemed to me to be just a minor change in the functioning of the government. Were there any new systems that Modi had brought in? No, there were no new systems that had been put in place, I was told.

What had been the result of this? The officers were unanimous in saying that it had resulted in one-man rule. It is true that the files move faster in Gujarat than they do elsewhere because of the lack of consultation. But the dangers associated with dismissing opposing views remain. What about the the idea that there is something called a Modi model of managing the economy?

Has he produced something that is radically different from before 2001? Of course not, and those who call his manner of functioning an economic model are basing this on insufficient understanding of Gujarat's economic history.

Updated Date: Jul 14, 2013 11:00 AM

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