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PM Modi is not a listener; so be prepared for it

PM Narendra Modi has come to remind me of an old-fashioned headmaster. He reportedly treats his ministers as schoolchildren, telling them what to wear, who to meet, and what to say, writes Mark Tully.

ht view Updated: Aug 31, 2014 19:52 IST
Narendra Modi,UPA government,Indira Gandhi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to remind me of an old-fashioned headmaster. He reportedly treats his ministers as schoolchildren, telling them what to wear, who to meet, and what to say.

Modi is apparently relying on his bureaucrats to keep him informed about events and advising him. But his office is vetting ministers' private secretaries and barring any who are felt to have been particularly close to the UPA government. From there it's only a short step to bureaucrats feeling that the prime minister wants a civil service committed to him. Committed civil servants tend to tell their political masters what they want to hear, not what is actually happening, unless it's good news. So Modi is in danger of getting distorted information from the source he relies on most.

The party should also be a key source of information for any prime minister. After Indira Gandhi's defeat in 1977 the Congress president, Dev Kant Barooah, famous for saying "India is Indira and Indira is India", told me the party members were so overawed by her and, even more so by Sanjay Gandhi, that the information they passed on was all doctored and presented a wholly unrealistic scenario. That he believed was one of the prime reasons for all that went wrong. Modi has entrusted the party to someone known as one of his closest colleagues, Amit Shah. Is there not a danger that Shah's dominance will block the BJP's channels of information?

Then there is the media, a source of information Indira Gandhi thought she could do without. She went so far as to tell the director general of All India Radio during the Emergency not to bother about credibility. But Indira Gandhi discovered to her cost that rumour-mongers flourished when there was no credible media. She once told a director general of the BBC, "I never lost the affection of the people, they were only mislead by rumours." Today the prime minister believes that the media should merely report what the government says and not question it. So he, his officials and his ministers communicate with the media through Twitter. This robs journalists of the opportunity to probe the information they receive more deeply and so their reporting is not as informative as it could be. More importantly, journalists' questions reflect the concerns the public might have about government policies and therefore Twitter will make another vital source of information less reliable.

The judiciary is a vital guardian of the people's rights, preventing overweening governments from trampling on them. That was why it was decided the government should have no role in selecting them. They should be selected by their fellow judges. But now that the government has re-entered the process, is there not a danger that judges or lawyers who the law minister thinks are too independent-minded will not be appointed?

Lastly Modi doesn't seem concerned about listening to the voice of experience. There is a widespread feeling within the Congress that Rahul Gandhi depends too much on inexperienced advisors with fancy foreign degrees. Modi has not surrounded himself with young inexperienced advisors but he hasn't shown much respect for experience. He is without most of the top leadership of the previous NDA, and the prime minister himself has never been involved in government at the national level.

So the first 100 days of the Modi raj indicate that India doesn't have a listening prime minister. It is therefore possible, I believe, that he will become isolated from reality. That Modi is not a listener was confirmed early in his government when he posted a statement on his personal website abruptly telling those who were not used to the change he intended to introduce "to get used to this for the coming years".

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 30, 2014 23:43 IST