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Very soon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will complete his first year in office. No doubt, he and his colleagues will herald this milestone and highlight what they consider to be their accomplishments so far. His critics will point to the promises not kept, the tall nature of the claims being made and the U-turns taken, of which his stance on the goods and services tax is the most prominent example. There can be a genuine difference of opinion on the substance of the last year, but there can be no dispute on the style. And style is as important as substance. The style is clearly authoritarian with a democratic veneer. There have been the ritual genuflections to the glory of Indian democracy with its splendid diversity, but when it comes to actual governance, the processes, procedures and protocols of such a democracy have been given a deliberate go-by.

First, Mr Modi has undoubtedly centralized all authority and decision-making. In the process, he has reduced all but one or two ministers at most to non-entities. He operates directly with the top bureaucracy across ministries and departments, very often without the knowledge of the ministers concerned, and has now started direct interactions with top civil servants in the states as well.

Second, he has reduced the importance of elected representatives of his own party, sending a clear message to them that they are in Parliament because of him. These MPs are finding it difficult to get their concerns addressed and the demands of their constituencies met. How long they will keep quiet and take this lying down is the question. Already, some murmurs have started and a couple have actually given expression to their frustrations, although in
closed-door meetings.

Third, Mr Modi has treated Parliament itself with barely disguised contempt. The institution of standing committees that came into being decades ago to scrutinize legislation in a non-partisan manner has taken a severe beating. In the last year, 52 bills have been introduced, of which barely five have been sent to the standing committee concerned. Amendments to four important Acts relating to the regulation of securities and forward contracts, to foreign exchange management and the prevention of money laundering were smuggled into the finance bill, a truly unprecedented move.

Fourth, the Prime Minister has made every effort to assert the primacy of the executive. This, in itself, is not objectionable, but what is disturbing is the manner in which he is treating institutions that are there to provide checks and balances. He has strangulated the implementation of the Right to Information Act, 2005, or RTI as it is widely called, which has been hailed as a most effective instrument of transparency and accountability in administration. His fulminations against so-called five-star activists in the presence of the Chief Justice of India and his counterparts in states as well as judges of the Supreme Court disclosed his intemperate side.

Fifth, Mr Modi has put civil society on notice: stop agitations and mobilization or face his wrath. Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation are only the most visible and internationally unsettling of examples. There are numerous other instances where civil society institutions, so very essential for ensuring that our democracy is responsive and sensitive, have been given a clear signal that their activities will not be tolerated if they question the official establishment line. Most of these institutions are now on the defensive and apprehensive. While grass-roots social action groups are under watch, well-heeled think tanks are beginning to make their presence felt.

The style is the man. And the man is clearly a legend in his own mind. In his recent interview to Time, the Prime Minister proclaimed that he invented the term “cooperative federalism". Too bad he had not read the May 2004 Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance, which spoke of cooperative federalism before Mr Modi ever did. He claims that the modernization of the Burnpur steel plant in West Bengal is a demonstration of “Make in India", while the obvious truth is that the modernization has been over a decade in the making and all that Mr Modi did was dedicate it to the nation. He gives the impression that he discovered the need for “skill India", while the truth is that his predecessor first spoke about such a mission a couple of years ago from the ramparts of Red Fort. Time and again, the Prime Minister has disclosed his penchant for hyperbole.

Mr Modi got a convincing mandate in May 2014. He raised expectations very high by what he said during the election campaign and soon after becoming Prime Minister. There is no doubt that he has a single-minded sense of focus and purpose. There is also no doubt that he has an inexhaustible energy and a huge flair for the dramatic that has manifested itself both at home and abroad. But why such a man, who has reached the pinnacle—an achievement that cannot be devalued in any way—should have so much insecurity, should have suspicion of his own colleagues and should be disdainful of those who he has defeated in the electoral battle is baffling. In the initial months of his tenure, Mr Modi seemed to be unveiling a new avatar of himself. But there is a world of difference between what he said then and how he went about the business of governance thereafter.

There is no question that the Prime Minister, for the most part, has resisted making incendiary and inflammatory statements, but then he has allowed his colleagues to do so as part of a deliberate strategy. There is no doubt on Mr Modi’s zest and zeal. He exudes power, although the pronounced swagger is most unnecessary now and is very jarring. There is no question that he is “hands on". But on the whole, he who promised to govern by deadlines is ruling by headlines.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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