Modi PM
Ronojoy Banerjee
Modi Is Strengthening The Centre— And Rightly So

Gallons of ink have been expended in describing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged authoritarian streak in running the government. From centralization of powers at the Prime Minister’s Office to overruling decisions of line ministers and swift action – most notably in the recent Myanmar strikes — all have been unquestioningly accepted as proof of his ‘one-man-only’ style of governance.

The alarmist and hyperbolic warnings have been generously showered on the Modi administration by many prominent members of the commentariat of different hues, colours and leanings. However, if one of these voluble actors were to analyse his actions more closely, purely from an academic perspective sans ideological leanings, accusations of authoritarianism may seem nothing more than chatter and flatulence. Far from accumulating powers, Mr Modi is in fact restoring powers of the Federal Government that was left rudderless during the UPA years.

State (read Government) is one of the three pillars, Francis Fukuyama identifies in his magisterial two part volume – The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy — as a pre-requisite for creating a political order; the other two being the rule of law and democratic accountability. The first pillar reaffirms Max Weber’s hypothesis “that the State is a hierarchical, centralized organization that holds a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory.”

But the second and third institutions play a restraining role in those powers of the first institution by ensuring that everyone, including the elected officials of the Government falls under the rule of law. Democratic or political accountability gives people the periodic opportunity to change governments through free and fair elections if they fail to fulfil the role of the State. Fukuyama tells us that these three institutional pillars are often in conflict, yet countries have to strive to strike the right balance. What that balance is indeed subjective and open to dispute, but he uses ‘getting to Denmark’ as the aspiring benchmark.

It is astonishing, how this simple three-leg matrix can help us analyse any society in the world, from ancient Mesopotamia’s to modern day America’s. Specifically for India and China, they offer contrasting political orders that is very interesting for this analysis. China, according to Fukuyama, was the first civilization to create a modern impersonal State which was centralized and bureaucratic. However, while this allowed a strong State to emerge in the world’s most populous country, the institution of rule of law is weak and democratic accountability is non-existent. This has allowed the State to enjoy unrestrained powers.

As its bipolar opposite, India has stronger institutions of rule of law – with a vigilant judiciary at its centre – and a firmer tradition of regular elections. However it is the State that has traditionally been weak. This weakness has hindered the ability to provide basic services. Here Fukuyama gives a telling example – using Jean Dreze’s research from the late 1990s – of how almost 50 per cent of government school teachers in Uttar Pradesh did not turn up for work despite drawing their monthly salaries. Even when the same survey was conducted a decade later nothing had changed!

In this context, UPA under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh between 2004 and 2014    reinforced this weakness – that stemmed from the Prime Minister’s Office — at the Federal level. When analysed from Fukuyama’s matrix it appears that the weaker the Federal Government became the stronger institutions of rule of law and democratic accountability appeared in relative terms. It is no coincidence then that judicial and media activism became most intense under UPA’s tenure. As beneficial as these developments maybe for a thriving democracy, they cannot compensate for a weak State.

Though many factors are attributable for this weakness, the two notable ones were the dual-power structure between the Prime Minister and President of Congress Party and the compulsions of adjusting to demands of coalitional politics. During those eventful (or more aptly uneventful) ten years the Prime Minister’s Office steadily ceded ground in decision-making, evidenced in not just the two DMK telecom ministers overruling the Prime Minister’s concerns on spectrum pricing that eventually led to a massive scam, but also in the 62 Empowered Group of Ministers and GoMs the government created for taking decisions. Unsurprisingly decision-making moved languidly during this period.

Apart from inability to provide services, there is also a striking co-relation between weak States and corruption. The more indecisive the executive becomes, the more it throws open the doors for vested interest and pressure groups to enter the fray and potentially use its power and influence to mould policy-making to their advantage. Crony capitalism was in full display when Niira-Radi’s phone conversations leaked exposing the fault-lines and the back-room machinations of the powerful. By the end of its ten year tenure the UPA government increasingly looked like – to borrow Jagdish Bhagwati’s description of the WTO after the TRIPs agreement — a three-legged chair with one leg (weak State) shorter than the other two (rule of law and democratic accountability).

Unencumbered by coalitional compulsions, Mr Modi has finally given some bite to the office of the executive. Decisions from the panel created to locate black money stashed overseas, to disbanding the EGOMs and GoMs to scrapping the Planning Commission all point towards that direction. It is even speculated that the first union budget had Mr Modi’s imprint on it. No doubt then that decision-making has coalesced largely in the PMO. But is it as undesirable as some would have us believe? Surely, strong States too can be source for nepotism and bad governance, evidenced in multiple examples from Latin America and Africa, but India’s example is intriguing since it has traditionally had a weak Federal state but powerful institutions of rule of law and democratic accountability.

The paranoia surrounding strong Governments shows how even after 35 years the Emergency still dictates our attitude of the present. Though being distrustful of the Government and questioning its motives has its virtues, but it should not cloud our mind to the need for a strong executive. India is beset with too many policy challenges and can ill-afford a weak, directionless and indecisive Federal Government. Even if we can’t get to the standards of Denmark in the short-run, we however need to strike a finer balance between the three pillars.