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Modi, The Price Of One Man's Loyalty Obsession

Narendra Modi's fixation with unflinching loyalty from those close to him is a worrying trait that betrays the Indian prime minister's own insecurities.

Indian Prime Minister delivering a speech.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during a celebration of India's Independence Day in Delhi, August 15, 2023.

Javed Dar/Xinhua via ZUMA
Jawhar Sircar


NEW DELHI — There is no doubt that the increasing politicization of the bureaucracy has been corroding, for quite some time, the pillars on which fair and efficient administration rest. The pains taken by the founding fathers of our constitution to protect and insulate the civil service from political interference had ensured a large degree of neutrality, for several decades — except perhaps during the so-called "Emergency," following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's calling a national state of emergency in 1975.

What is more important is that it created a culture of looking down at any suspiciously close liaison between politicians and bureaucrats (for mutual personal gain) to be illicit and adulterous.

The recently passed Delhi Services Act runs counter to this ethos and legitimizes the babu-neta nexus. While asserting the supremacy of politics and administration (euphemistically called the executive) over the judiciary, it ensures that the Union government’s political agenda is thrust on an elected chief minister. This law damages the very federal structure, to uphold which, the all India services were created. The chief minister’s control over the civil service, enshrined in List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, is undermined by legally empowering the chief secretary and the home secretary of Delhi to overrule him.

The root of the success of political governance that lies in the subordinate position of the bureaucracy is, thus, uprooted – which, in effect, exposes officers to a field that is full of pits and mines. It is not that senior bureaucrats have never differed from chief ministers, but officials believe that when two persons ride a horse, one has to ride behind.

Loyalty-based system

Those who know Narendra Modi are, however, not scandalised with this daylight politicisation of the administration, for he has never hidden his contempt for its basic principles of experience, merit and seniority. Modi’s fixation is with unflinching personal loyalty – a trait that both the law and centuries of experience discourage.

An open structure like public administration cannot and should not be converted into a closed private limited company. But Modi’s basic insecurities prompt him to pick his cabal, often over the heads of many other competent bureaucrats. He rewards loyalty and ensures that every officer who has been of use to him is recompensed, often beyond his dreams. This strategy seeks to break the spine of neutrality of civil servants and explains why many are collaborating in Modi’s grey-to-black-area decisions.

These "collaborators" are banking on his ever-continuing rule, and they often overlook the fact that their fingerprints can later be traced in the controversial surrender of national assets like airports, port areas, power utilities and coal blocks to cronies. These will reveal how much collaborators had stretched to please the boss. It is good to remind them that ultimately it was officials (even upright ones) who were given jail sentences in the coal controversy.

His distrust of non-tested officers is just too strongly embedded in his psyche.

The other less-discussed characteristic of the functioning of Narendra Modi, as chief minister or prime minister, is his sheer panic with the English language. This is strange, as Chaudhary Charan Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda could manage quite well, with a judicious mix of languages and Modi has the credit of mastering a second language, Hindi.

But his unease with English is quite visible and explains his obsession with Gujarati and Hindi. He is not embarrassed in selecting a grossly disproportionate number of officers from Gujarat, irrespective of their state of origin. He plonks them in most critical positions — from the omnipotent principal secretary in the PMO to heads of several agencies through which he spreads terror. They explain files and reports to him in Gujarati or in Hindi, and he confesses that he is loathe to read the written word. Working in Gujarat becomes an unimaginable asset, and even a private sector employee of a crony company now wields the whip in Delhi.

These two limitations restrict his choice severely and explains the third, i.e. why he hates to let go of these henchmen. His distrust of non-tested officers is just too strongly embedded in his psyche, which is why the present cabinet secretary and home secretary are on perpetual extension. In fact, the first law he amended as soon as he became prime minister was to get over a legal prohibition and have a bland but trusted retired officer as his principal secretary. The extension after extension that Sanjay Mishra continues to get as the director of the now-notorious Enforcement Directorate vindicates his clutching-on habit.

People burning  effigy of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest march.

Members of the Indian National Congress party burn an effigy of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a protest in Kolkata.

Dipayan Bose/SOPA Images via ZUMA

A rich men's world

Under Modi, Faustian babu-neta bargains are reportedly on the rise, even if they wreck civil service ethics and ethos. The civil service continues, however, to remain attractive despite severe criticism, a large part of which is misplaced. Every year, several lakh youth still compete for the less than a thousand top posts in the higher echelons of the civil service. This fresh blood transfusion helps maintain the best stream possible, and it is commendable that a large section of the bureaucracy does not connive to benefit the regime’s favoured plutocrats and oligarchs. This is evident from the reluctance of the conscientious officers to allow wholesale privatisation of national assets at throwaway value or even to indulge in questionable lease of government properties. This invited Modi’s bitter wrath at the IAS, some time ago.

Terror is Modi’s favored instrument and affects many an officer. He is not, of course, the only one who uses this patronage-or-punishment choice, but he has sunk it to dizzying depths. How else how does one explain the stock-market regulator SEBI looking the other way when the valuation of questionable companies went up by 5,000% in three years? Finance ministry officials of that period cannot claim to be unaware of what was happening.

Similarly, those in the coal and power ministries can hardly feign innocence while framing policies to facilitate a monopolist to handle coal import at costs that are 8 to 10 times higher than domestic, and extract the higher bills from us. Similarly, bank chiefs and ministry officials have all been privy to (and part of) the unprecedented write-offs done during Modi’s nine years, amounting to a staggering Rs 12.51 lakh crore. This humungous sum was "adjusted" in the name of “cleaning account books”, by destroying forever the money kept in banks. In reality, however, cronies and frauds like Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi could get away and splurge in luxuries abroad.

This regime facilitates the rich to get richer.

Modi’s regime has surely facilitated the rich to become incredibly richer. Ambani increased his wealth from $18 billion in 2014 to a staggering $90 billion now. Adani, who flew Modi from Ahmedabad to Delhi in his private plane in 2014 (sending all sorts of signals), increased his worth from $8 billion then to an unbelievable $140 billion in eight years. Then, the Hindenburg report punctured it and brought it down to $64 billion at present — which is still sky high. One noticed that babus who successfully managed these and other "best friends" did phenomenally well in service, and even in politics later on.

Behind the neutral front

The system is so convoluted that few can realize how this regime facilitates the rich to get richer. Let’s see an example. If one examines India’s controversial role in playing "neutral" during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we find it actually benefitted two Indian corporates of Gujarat more than it helped the people of India. While the external affairs minister and his horde of unusually-biased officials, who troll anyone for saying the truth, loudly justified Modi’s decision to procure cheaper Russian crude by defying the West as patriotic, the public sector refineries could hardly gain for almost a year. They were bound by long term contracts to source their supplies at much higher prices.

Countless wannabes hang around politicians till late at night, hoping to find a place in the "court".

It was two private refineries in Gujarat which have (with low obligation to supply oil to our pumps) lapped up cheap Russian crude and then re-exported petro-products at phenomenal profits. India exported 98 million tonnes of petro-products for $97 billion in the Ukraine-shattered year 2022-23 — as compared to the $67 billion we got in 2021-22, for the very same quantity. ONGC and IOC are prohibited by the government to export and make profits. The government’s narrative and BJP’s propaganda did not mention that the Ukraine policy actually enriched Modi’s cronies. Another ex-diplomat in charge of the petroleum ministry and his officials disclose nothing to the nation, not even why our petrol prices were not coming down despite lower costs of imports.

Every profession suffers a few pejorative terms and the choicest one for bureaucrats is "courtier". But Birbal was also one — a wise one. Even the most rancid critics cannot deny that the calling is, indeed, a critical and coveted one. So much so that countless wannabes hang around politicians till late at night, hoping to find a place in the "court" of political governance.

But, as we have seen, most constitutionally selected "courtiers" still follow principles. The problem is that the present ruler does not appreciate this and rewards only those officials or courtiers who dispense with all morality to please him.

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