When I went to meet a minister of state (MoS) with independent charge of two key departments recently, I was struck by his electrified state and the hyperactivity around him. It was 8pm and in the midst of the nonstop buzzing of his three phones, he said he rarely gets to knock off work before midnight. A few days later, in her office in one of the capital’s ubiquitous bhavans, another minister (also an MoS with independent charge) candidly let on that she doesn’t usually leave her office before 11 at night.
Narendra Modi’s government is barely two months old and this could be just a honeymoon period but anyone who visits the ministries in New Delhi’s North or South Block or elsewhere is struck by a new energy that abounds: ministers and bureaucrats come to work sharp and early; decisions are taken quickly; files don’t pile up; and there’s a markedly low level of idling. Everyone says it’s a culture that begins at the top, referring to Modi’s reputation of being a workaholic who often turns up at his office in South Block before 9 am and works late. “It’s a fast and furious work culture,” quips a government babu, “and we’re all on our toes.”
Such a work culture will have everyone’s vote, especially if it can become the new regime’s permanent hallmark but a democratic government’s job is only partly about running ministries and departments; the other part is about making laws and running parliament efficiently.
There the NDA government has started with a few hiccups. It opted for a longish budget session, from July 7 to August 14, but by last weekend, it appeared to be running out of business (read: bills to pass). The NDA inherited from the UPA 62 bills that were introduced in the Rajya Sabha and, therefore, were eligible to be taken up by it. But, unlike the UPA, which always had a ready list of bills in hand before a session began, the new government seemed unprepared.
It did get some business done. Besides the budget itself, which was passed on Friday, the TRAI act amendment bill was passed, as was one for the division of Andhra Pradesh. And, in the next couple of weeks, it could introduce others, including one to amend the powers of the Securities & Exchange Board of India and another to hike FDI in insurance. But that may still not be enough for the session to run its full course.
Besides the short agenda, there’s been sluggish movement on other parliamentary matters: the Speaker is still to solve the vexing issue of whether there will be a leader of the Opposition (the Congress has less than the number of seats it needs to automatically contend for the post); and is yet to allot seats to the Lok Sabha’s members (necessary if the electronic voting system is to work). Worse, there have been red faces in the treasury benches during the ongoing session: when the discussion on the railway budget began on July 11, the rail minister and his deputy were both conspicuously absent from the House, an embarrassing deviation from norm; and on July 21, opposition members complained that there weren’t enough copies of the budget papers during the debate on the finance bill.
These could just be teething troubles for what is the first full-fledged session of a new government. With a big mandate that the NDA has — 336 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats — these are wrinkles that can soon be ironed out. Also, the budget session has not been altogether poor. There was a star: finance-cum-defence minister Arun Jaitley shone bright. On July 18, Jaitley dealt with every question that was lobbed by the Opposition during the Lok Sabha’s question hour; and on July 22, he repeated that performance in the Rajya Sabha. But last week, as various ministers scrambled to tweak and tune pending bills to add to this session’s agenda, it wasn’t a very edifying thing.