The prime minister’s blind spot REPLY TO ALL
By surrounding himself by yes men and blind admirers, Mr Modi risks losing touch with the ground realities
Victorious Caesars returning to Italy from a battle against the French or Germans were gifted a Triumph. This consisted of a parade in which the Roman mob cheered the conqueror, who stood wearing a laurel wreath in a slow moving chariot. A servant stood behind the Caesar and periodically leaned forward to whisper “sic transit gloria mundi” (glory of the world fades) and “memento mori” (remember, you are mortal).
This was thought to be required lest success go to the head and produce a belief in personal infallibility. One wishes our Caesar also had such people around him as he continues his all-conquering ways, from Gujarat to Kerala. It is noticeable that he has surrounded himself with economists who are in complete agreement with Mr Modi that his policies are pure genius.
It is true, and it is sad, that some of them also subscribe to the Hindutva ideology, which, in essence, is a type of nationalism that is targeted against other Indians. But there are others as well who are just there to applaud. Running through the list of people Mr Modi has recently hired we have Surjit Bhalla on the Economic Advisory Council to the PM (EAC-PM), who says there have been more economic reforms in the last three years than ever before, and writes that the current slowdown can be attributed to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) intransigence on interest rates. Then we have Bibek Debroy, the head of the EAC-PM, who introduced a book titled Moditva, on how incandescent is the master’s genius. Outside of the EAC-PM, there is Rajiv Kumar of the NITI Aayog who has been a demonetisation enthusiast. Elsewhere we have principal economic advisor in the finance ministry Sanjeev Sanyal, a Hindutva intellectual and my guess is he is a Modi appointee rather than a Jaitley one. And a host of bureaucrats enthusiastic about proselytising the good word. The individual most associated with the bungling execution of demonetisation, Shaktikanta Das, has resurfaced and we should not be surprised if he, too, is soon offered a sinecure.
Scanning the horizon there are perhaps, and only perhaps, two men who do not fully egg Mr Modi on. RBI Governor Urjit Patel, who did not bring his Patidar community glory for having allowed himself to be bullied into demonetising the currency last year. And then for choosing to hide, giving us opacity instead of transparency. A request for details of the minutes of the RBI meeting that pretended to recommend demonetisation, instead of rubber stamping Mr Modi’s command, was rejected on the shameful but predictable grounds of national security.
My friend Venkatesh Nayak, who filed the RTI was reported as being puzzled by this. He understood the secrecy leading up to the decision, but why the secrecy now? He also asked for the details of who had been conferred with before the decision was taken, but that was also denied. Despite this sorry performance, the fact that the RBI is being blamed for being stubborn on interest rates we should put on the credit side and assume Mr Patel is to some extent his own man.
The other individual who possibly, but only possibly, is offering contrary opinion is the chief economic advisor to the finance ministry, Arvind Subramanian. “Possibly” because we haven’t been told what he really thinks, so one is guessing.
It is vital that this resistance be offered because Mr Modi is not an economist, neither is his finance minister, Mr Jaitely. This is not an unusual situation in any democracy. However, it is unusual to have a strong leadership, possessing a messianic certitude and intent on transformation, with the power to affect the lives of millions. This condition needs tempering from some source, and it certainly does not seem to be happening from within.
J P Morgan’s chief India economist, Sajjid Z Chinoy, feels the spike in imports indicates that something has recently played havoc with India’s manufacturing. Perhaps he is wrong, and I hope he is. But what if he is right? One can only begin to correct after acknowledging a problem. If one is surrounded by justifiers that will not happen.
The Gujarat BJP split a little over two decades ago. One faction of MLAs, which Shankarsinh Vaghela hustled off to a resort in Khajuraho were dubbed the Khajuriyas. The other, on Modi’s side, were called the Hajuriyas, for their propensity to say jee huzoor, even unprompted. It appears that those who say wah-wah saheb are rewarded in similar fashion today.
On the side of politics, this advice and caution is not needed. Mr Modi is the most talented politician of our time. His understanding of what buttons to press and when is unmatched. He is a communicator of the first rank. A minority that seeks depth may be put off by his theatrical style and lack of meaningful content. But even such people will find it difficult to not stand back and appreciate the brilliance of his craft and his raw talent.
We will see it displayed in full as he switches to election mode a few months from now. It will be a thing to behold even if he has to drag the deadweight of economic performance along. But the fact is that he doesn’t have to be burdened by that if he chooses not to be. He is the most credible leader we have and his intentions are not in doubt. If he says that an honest mistake was made, he will be forgiven politically and he knows that. India’s is not an electorate that has any history of rewarding or punishing economic performance, and the decades of Nehru and Indira rule will testify to this.
By instead choosing to plough on regardless, dismissing criticism as being motivated either by personal dislike of him or treason or something else, and, most importantly, shutting himself off from the servant who whispers that he is not infallible, he does us all, and himself, a disservice.