Obamian advice for Modi: No escape from the Cabinet system

Towards the end of September 2015 Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to the Indian media narrative, was out there conquering the West, engaging and earning applause from the most un-Indian Indians, the Silicon Valley NRI crowd. That week the American media was engrossed in the sudden resignation of the House of Representatives Speaker, John Boehner. This departure was the inevitable outcome of the extreme confrontational politics that the Republican Party right wing practises, not just against the Democratic Party but against its own moderate voices and faces. Speaker John Boehner was deemed by this fringe to be not sufficiently abusive, not sufficiently ideologically partisan, not sufficiently confrontational towards the Obama White House. He was forced out.

The Silicon Valley bunch that had gathered to cheer Modi also subscribes and relishes the American right wing’s personalised, adversarial approach to matters politics. Modi appeals to them because he satisfies their notion of how political issues should be settled. It is this collective itch for a take-no-prisoner approach that doubly goads the NRI crowd to reinforce Prime Minister Modi’s own political instincts.

When John Boehner stepped down, President Obama was magnanimously generous. He not only praised Boehner as a “patriot” and “a good man,” but also complimented his sense of democratic fairness:

“We obviously have had a lot of disagreements, and politically we’re at different ends of the spectrum, but I will tell you he has always conducted himself with courtesy and civility with me. He has kept his words when he has made a commitment. He is somebody who has been gracious  and I think he most importantly is somebody who understands that in governance, you don’t get 100 per cent  of what you want, but you have to work with people who you disagree with, sometime strongly, in order to do the people’s business.”

It has taken 18 months and a glorious defeat in Bihar for Mr Modi to begin to realise the abiding usefulness of Obamian wisdom about settling sometime for something less than 100 per cent. The invitation to the Congress president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, to talk the complicated matter of the GST was perhaps the first acknowledgement of the need “to work with people you disagree with, sometime strongly, in order to do the people’s business.” This unaccustomed experiment with political dialogue has not come a day too soon.

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Arguably Bihar has put paid to the pipedream of an inexorable political supremacy, wining state after state. Regrettably, many of the professional partisans and the neo-converts are busy telling the Prime Minister that notwithstanding the grand rebuff in Bihar, he remains undiminished as the voice of our times. No one can be sure whether the Prime Minister continues to buy into this hogwash. Nor can anyone know if it has dawned on the Prime Minister that instead of working for the total annihilation of his rivals, he and his party have no choice but to seek partnership with the rest of the political rivals. Surely, there is neither shame nor a slight to political manhood to want to seek cooperation and conciliation with different stakeholders in the Indian polity.

Nor is there any need for Mr Modi to announce from the housetop that he has understood that the Gujarat model of control and command has not worked in Delhi; but he does need to listen to the wise among his colleagues who would want to tell him that his preoccupation with over-centralisation of authority and over-concentration of initiative in the PMO has rendered the NDA government an ineffectual arrangement. Poor governance never yields healthy political dividends.

At the end of the day there is no option for Mr Modi but to go back to the Nehruvian fix. He has to discover that he has available to him an institution called the Cabinet as an instrument of governance. And, then understand that there is this niggling little encumbrance called the state governments, with their own defined areas of constitutional authority and responsibilities. The Modi sarkar, to put it mildly, cannot be a sultanate.

History can be a good teacher for helping Mr Modi find a good fix. Let us go 60 years back when Prime Minister Nehru was made to learn a thing or two in the niceties of federal functioning. Last week of December 1955. The new city of Chandigarh is being built. The great visionary architect Le Courbusier wanted to retain the services of the Chief Engineer, a gentleman called Parmeshwari Lal Varma, even after he had reached the age of superannuation. As far as Nehru was concerned, Le Corbusier was to have a carte blanche, Chandigarh was a dream project and the service rules were dispensable. Not for Chief Minister Bhimsen Sachar. And the Punjab Chief Minister told the Prime Minister so, in words less than courteous. In a letter dated January 10, 1956, to Sachar, Nehru noted “a certain irritation on your part that I had interfered in this matter at all and your desire to make it clear that you would stand no nonsense from me, if I may put it crudely.”

This was in early 1956. Jawaharlal Nehru was at the peak of his political authority. But Nehru conceded that “there is the Constitution which lays down precisely in what matters the state governments must follow the Centre’s direction and in what matters they have full authority to decide for themselves and even not accept the Centre’s advice.”  In his defence, all that Nehru could do was to invoke personal and political loyalties “as a leading member of the Congress organisation of which we are all members.”

Then, Nehru goes on to spell out a cardinal principle of governing this vast and complex land called India: “In any important matter, I do not function by myself, even though I am Prime Minister. I take the advice of my colleagues in the Cabinet either formally or informally. That is the way of democratic government. I am often overruled by my colleagues and sometimes converted by them. Often we find a middle way. There is no other method of working of democracy except by the fullest consultation and by the largest measure of agreement.”

The ruling establishment is entitled to its silly preoccupation of wanting to de-legitimise the Nehruvian legacy. This preoccupation may perhaps be necessary to keep the Nagpur bosses in good humour. But a ruler has an obligation not to confuse frills with essentials. It is not too late in the day for the Prime Minister to defer to the Nehruvian wisdom and return to collegiate functioning. If the Prime Minister has any doubts, he can always consult President Obama.

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