It's power to bureaucrats in Narendra Modi govt

  • Sanjoy Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 05, 2014 14:02 IST

References to the ‘Gujarat Model’ were rife during the campaigning for the last Lok Sabha elections — both in glowing as well as not-so-glowing terms depending on which side’s spiel you were listening to. Nearly all those references related to the economic and social development of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat when he was chief minister there and the debate that swirled was about whether it was successful and could be transplanted elsewhere.

But the real Gujarat Model that is being replicated by Modi is not about development but about his style of governance. You needn’t look much further than New Delhi’s Raisina Hill to see why.

Read: Growth, job bait to woo Maharashtra

First a quick flashback to Gandhinagar, from where Modi as chief minister ran the state government for more than 12 years. Ringsiders, including journalists in Gujarat, have noted how his tenure was marked by his preference for empowering bureaucrats and according a degree of importance to them that often exceeded that of his ministers.

It is true that Modi had among his ministers a few that wielded some clout, including Anandiben Patel (his successor as CM), Amit Shah (now BJP president) and Saurabh Patel (still a cabinet minister in Gujarat with key portfolios) but his most trusted aides were all highly empowered bureaucrats whose appointments, transfers and responsibilities were closely controlled by the chief minister’s office (CMO).

Before Modi took charge as CM transfers and appointments of civil servants and senior police officers was a sort of an industry with everyone from local leaders of the BJP and the RSS to industrialists and businessmen able to influence those decisions.

After he became chief minister, things changed. All appointments were decided by the CMO and frequent transfers became a thing of the past. The outcome of all this was a more stable team in the chief minister’s administration, which drew its strength mainly from a powerful bureaucracy.

Read: ‘Look East’ policy is now ‘Act East’

Less than five months into his administration, Modi as prime minister is transposing a model of governance that is remarkably similar to the one he had in Gujarat. His council of ministers numbers only 44 (there has been intermittent buzz about a cabinet expansion, but nothing has happened) with a few heavyweights, of course, but many first-timers; and the bureaucracy has been empowered far more than it has been in decades.

One of the first things that Modi did after he became prime minister was to hold a meeting with 77 secretaries of all government departments where he encouraged them to work fearlessly and proactively. This was followed by extensive presentations that each department made directly to the PM over the following weeks.

Those interactions, says a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), energised civil servants and boosted their confidence. Less abstract things have also happened: Modi has asked secretaries (and, notably, not their ministers) to identify 8-10 regulations in each ministry that can be done away with.

And on September 23, just before he went on his US visit, nearly 50 bureaucrats, mainly joint secretaries, got their assignments shuffled . Those changes were the outcome of an elaborate evaluation of each officer across a matrix of factors, including past experience, achievements, strengths and potential — a corporate-like exercise that was done by the PMO to ensure that pegs matched holes.

HT editorial: We need Modi’s brand of shock and awe

One criticism of the Modi government has been that it doesn’t have the bench strength of ministers that earlier regimes had; and that there are so few seasoned ministers that they have been overburdened with multiple portfolios. But there are many things that we’re seeing the new prime minister do differently.

In the past week itself he reached out to Indian-Americans in a New York stadium; he wielded the broom and swept New Delhi’s streets; and talked on radio to the citizens of India on the day of Dussehra. The real difference, however, is in the way he runs his government — leaning more on an empowered bureaucracy than a bloated council of ministers.

You can reach Sanjoy Narayan on Twitter @sanjoynarayan

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