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

Business Standard - - OPINION - AAKAR PA­TEL

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.

ILLUSTRATION BY BINAY SINHA

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