An intriguing state of affairs

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In April 2014, just before the general election, the man who would become prime minister was interviewed at length on camera by the activist and writer Madhu Kishwar.

Narendra Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat, revealed some things about himself and his style of working that I found interesting. I took some notes as I was watching and this is what he said. He claimed he had singlehandedly changed the work culture of the chief minister’s office in Gujarat. Before he took charge, chief ministers would show up at 12. But Modi was always punctual and in office by 9:45 am. This is true: I know he is very particular about time and each time I have met him it has been at the exact minute of the appointment. He also concludes on or before time so as to keep his schedule intact.

Another important thing he revealed in the interview was the manner of how he actually worked when he got to office. Modi said he doesn’t read the files, which are the primary way in which administrative decisions are taken. A note on the issue is written up at a lower level proposing something and the file passes up through the ranks, with additions and markings from each person, till it reaches the ultimate decision maker, in this case the chief minister. Modi chooses not to read the file.

This I found to be unusual in someone who is so decisive, as Modi surely is, because one needs full control over the subject if one is eager to take big decisions. But Modi says in the interview he cannot govern through “academics studies (sic)”. What he does instead is to ask his officers to summarise all issues for him in the file, and then brief him orally. The officers are expected to go through the file and tell him, as he put it, “yeh masala hai kya”. Modi said he had the capacity to figure out the delicate contours of these issues without actually reading about them. He said this is because “mera itna grasping tha (I had the ability to grasp the issues well)”. Modi also revealed that he was a ‘good listener’ and was able to absorb what was being said to him.

When I heard him say this in the interview, my first thought was that it made him vulnerable to the bureaucrats he was trusting because he is dependent on their briefing and can be fed as much or as little as the officer wants him to know. In the style of working as Modi describes it, a complex matter that occupies dozens and perhaps hundreds of pages in files is reduced to an oral summary. It is also possible that because of lack of time or for another reason, an oral summary is simplistic and does not capture the complexity of the issue.

On the basis of this summary, Modi takes a decision and this is then executed through the administration. This style seems to have worked well for Modi because he is thought of as being a good chief minister in his 12 years in Gujarat, from the governance point of view. These days, however, I have been again thinking about Modi’s style of refusing to read material and taking input in this form when taking decisions.

 

Modi takes a decision and this is then executed through the administration. This style seems to have worked well for Modi because he is thought of as being a good chief minister in his 12 years in Gujarat, from the governance point of view. These days, however, I have been again thinking about Modi’s style of refusing to read material and taking input in this form when taking decisions.

 

That is because the Supreme Court is asking critical questions about the way in which the demonetisation policy was rolled out. The court wants to know if the policy was planned properly, or a decision was taken “just like that” when Modi scrapped Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes on November 8. The court wanted to know why the government was announcing withdrawal limits but the banks were unable to give their money to the citizens. Why did things appear like they had not been thought through? This is a question of course that many Indians are asking, including Modi’s supporters because several decisions taken have been reversed or rolled back and the timeline for the return to normalcy seems unclear, bringing daily trauma to hundreds of millions.

The Centre has pushed back strongly to assert its independence and said that monetary policy could not be made up by courts. I think the government is right on that count, and I hope that the issue is resolved in the government’s favour.

To return to the subject, I think Modi’s style of working might have some advantages. For example, where quick decisions need to be taken or where the issue is not particularly complex. Modi has a very good eye for what is visually appealing and I suspect that things like the Make in India logo, which is excellent, have come because Modi has personally approved them. He may have been shown some sample designs that were held up for him at a meeting and he would have picked a couple and asked for them to be worked on. His breezy style of decision making is suited for that.

But what happens when the issue that is being decided on is vast, complex and needs to be studied thoroughly and personally by the individual who is taking the decision and who is ultimately accountable for it? Then I suspect things get more problematic. Not everything can be reduced to oral summaries, particularly economic policies that affect and inconvenience more than a billion people.

Modi’s style is the exact opposite style as Manmohan Singh, who was detail oriented as you would expect an academic to be. Singh has written that he fears demonetisation will end up as a mammoth tragedy over the next few months, and that it will affect economic growth, wiping out two percentage points from the world’s fastest growing country.

 

Modi’s style is the exact opposite style as Manmohan Singh, who was detail oriented as you would expect an academic to be. Singh has written that he fears demonetisation will end up as a mammoth tragedy over the next few months, and that it will affect economic growth, wiping out two percentage points from the world’s fastest growing country.

 

Modi on the other hand has told us that we will enter a different and better world in January. Both men cannot be right and we will know which one of them is wrong quite soon. And we will also know if the style that has served Modi so well when running a small state is suited to running the second largest nation in the world.

 

The Article First Appeared In THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE

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