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HindustanTimes Tue,23 Sep 2014

#Modi100: A cabinet dominated by just one man

Shiv Visvanathan   September 02, 2014
First Published: 00:18 IST(2/9/2014) | Last Updated: 08:40 IST(2/9/2014)

Regimes that are nervous about reports already carry the penumbra of doubt, a sense that nothing substantive has happened. The BJP has made the transition, from the party in Opposition to the ruling regime.

The change in mentality is all that it has achieved. Even that looks dramatically more effective because of the sheer hollowness of the Congress party.

Otherwise, what the regime can claim is a collection of performative movements and promissory notes. Right now, the BJP can be summed up in Churchillian terms as a modest party with a lot to be modest about.

What gives the regime an edge is the silence, the literal absence of information and debate. In fact, one sees the Cabinet as a secondary body, without individuality or diversity, dominated by the presence of one man — the Prime Minister.

In terms of drama, the regime scores high. The government began on a high performative note during the swearing-in.

If correctness was the tone, then he has achieved it completely. Yet, as one moved from the performative acts of politics to the muddiness of policy, one faces the first act of inertness.

The first snafu was Smriti Irani’s handling of the Delhi University crisis.

The BJP pretended to keep its distance, forgetting the fact that its election manifesto promised abolition of the course.

The sudden cancellation of the course on grounds of clerical error, the indifference of the fate to about 100,000 students, and the little comedy of her academic credentials suggested that the government was playing its policy but working with no ideas of the future.

The language controversy surrounding the civil services exams conveyed the same message, of a government caught between its own instinct for populism and its need to be technocratic.

Finally, it came with a nominal solution that marks in English language would not be counted for evaluation.

All these are knee-jerk cracks of knee-jerk regimes. If one adds to the fact that the innocuous looking Dina Nath Batra moves around with more confidence than NCERT or UGC, one starts wondering who is in control of culture — the RSS or the regime.

One domain where it can claim positive impact is in ecology. Modi’s promises of cleaning up the Ganga, of establishing an institution for the study of the Himalayas, are positive steps. Any regime that cleans up the Ganga literally creates an enduring memorial to itself.

But not everything sounds eloquent. Between the decision to raise the Narmada dam's height, the proposal to interlink the rivers or the futile attempt to search for Saraswati, one begins to wonder where eccentricity ends and policy begins.

The debates on agriculture have created a sense of uncertainty. The tentativeness of Prakash Javadekar adds to it.

He seems to be trying to please many masters. He first announced that BT Brinjal would soon embark on research trials.

 Protests from peasant movements and NGOs made little difference till Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) moved in and the trials were suspended. The decision is personally welcome but the nature of debate disappears or fades into secrecy.

Transparency of policy is something the BJP must work upon. However, one domain where it has been impressive is in its stand on WTO. The government emphasised the importance of food security, its accountability to the poor and it does deserve accolades for this.

Its foreign policy is a script yet to be fully enacted. There are impressive moves, its openness to Nepal in its attempt to restore dignity to the Indo- Nepal relationship is impressive.

However, the re-arresting of Irom Sharmila does not augur well for the Northeast. Being open to the Saarc, but closed to states within the country is a policy that won’t work well for the government.

The government's understanding of institution is uncertain. The Planning Commission has been erased but planning as a process still needs to be elaborated. The ruckus over judicial appointments also creates a sense of doubt whether the bureaucracy is a mere cover for political interests.

It’s not policy that grabs ones attention. It’s not the rituals of cleanliness and punctuality that one remembers. It is the silences of the regime that are riveting — particularly its silences of communalism.

To be fair, a hundred days is too little a time for judgment in terms of content. Yet, in terms of ethics, clarity and openness, this government needs to rethink its behaviour. One hopes it has the courage to look at its mistakes and return debate to the centrality of the policy.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.)


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