Monday, 10 August 2020

Is There A Friendly Adviser For Modi?

Updated: July 26, 2014 3:03 pm

Bureaucrats turned advisers have some special traits. Despite various ‘Services’, the bureaucracy is generalist by nature and a few weeks of nodding acquaintance in a particular post on a temporary basis is sufficient to generate ‘experts’

Advising a king is never easy and is often costly and even fatal. Sensible counselling elevates wise heads but also cuts them off when it came up with wrong advise. Modern day advisers are a fortunate lot. Because there are multiple sources of advise, many take credit for successes and none want to own up when things go wrong. Advising the ruler, thus, is simpler these days. At worse, one is either shown the door unceremoniously or never sought after. Either way, the wiser ones get to present a ringside view of the governance or lack of it.

Whether one needs or listens to them, advisers have become an integral part of modern day governance and they sprawl and proliferate. They are a special tribe over and above the vast army of bureaucrats. Some have formal designations and fancier titles and others are members of a growing breed of technical teams, special committees or task forces. Advisory committees have an aura of omnipresence. A few are salaried positions but most advisory positions in India are honorary and come only with fringe benefits and perks. Though only some are to be advertised, many flaunt their ‘membership’ in high-power committees as sign of their proximity to the government of that day. Some are satisfied with name dropping and others carry their ‘membership’ in their calling cards.

Advising the government of the day is not without its benefits. It indicates that the person has arrived, at last. Membership in various committees in an advisory capacity enhances their position, visibility and above of ego. The perception that they ‘advise’ the government of the day boosts their social standing.

Each governments, political parties, regimes or leaders have their favourites. When the Delhi durbar changes, the army of advisers also changes. Some become advisers in the true sense of the word but many never graduate beyond the coterie stage. A few are dexterous and managed to hang on even when there is a regime change; seasons change at a pace but these ones change their loyalties overnight. Indeed, except for the members of the Planning Commission and a few other committees, no member of many panels that were constituted during the UPA regime have resigned since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister.

Bureaucrats turned advisers have some special traits. Despite various ‘Services’, the bureaucracy is generalist by nature and a few weeks of nodding acquaintance in a particular post on a temporary basis is sufficient to generate ‘experts’. For the vast majority of the bureaucracy, knowledge or expertise are to be acquired not through learning or training, but are enshrined in the chair that they occupy. And the late K Subrah-manyam aptly called it the Vikramadiya throne syndrome.

Moreover, their enlightenment often begins with superannuation. For many, wisdom begins only after retirement and they start criticizing policies that they were executing only a few weeks earlier. Red beacon is a must when you a status conscious judge; but once you retire, it is to be despised as a sign of feudalism, and ostentatious status symbol. But, who says belated wisdom is irrelevant.

In recent years, a few self-proclaimed advisers go step further and called themselves or wrote under the pseudonym, Kautilya. Even if one were to accept their knowledge and vision, calling oneself after the legendary adviser of Chandragupta Maurya is chutzpah to say the least.

The selection of advisers also indicates the mindset of those who appoint. This is amply manifested in the choice of National Security Adviser. Ever since the position was created by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, two types of persons have occupied this office; namely, former diplomats or security experts. By their very nature, security and foreign policy establishments are two different animals and have different worldview, training, agenda or priority. In the broadest sense, a security expert looks for a crisis in every opportunity and a diplomat looks for an opportunity in every crisis. Hence, what should be the priority for the government of the day? A crisis or opportunity?

And teachers are notorious and enjoy advising, especially in offering unsolicited ones. Why should one be an exception? Modi is not known for his shyness to seek knowledge and expertise. This where his success lay. A number of sensible minds would accept his call to serve the nation. However, the army of advisers and experts available to Modi are primarily the servants of the Government of India. Those selected to offer their political, economic, security or foreign policy expertise are paid to serve the government and in this context, specifically Modi.

This is where the problem arises. The issue is not their knowledge or competence but their ability to offer an advise, suggestion or critical view without the Damocles sword of exit hanging over their heads. The issue not their expertise but their dependency upon the one who appoints them. Even if Modi is receptive to criticisms, the fear of removal is always there and can’t be wished by people who spent long years training themselves in not upsetting the system. Which politician, for example, would consider a maverick bureaucrat as the Chief Secretary of a State?

The golden rule is simple. An adviser should not only be wise, sharp and sober but also be autonomous. Kautilya’s greatness does not lay in his brilliance alone but also in his autonomous existence beyond the ruler. This independence is possible only if the adviser has a personal standing and does not depend upon the ruler. In simple English, the paid employee can never be a true adviser. If his or her survival or prosperity is linked to the ruler, we would only have Man Fridays or HMVs.

This is problem is more pertinent for Modi. From what we know, the Prime Minister does not have a close circle of friends. Indeed, most of his life is public than private. This explains his ability to continue with a gruelling work schedule even on weekends. He does not happen to have the usual hangers on who ruined many political careers.

This absence of coterie has a flip side; Modi does not a circle of friends who could stand up to him and offer a considered opinion on various issues of the statecraft without worrying about his or her status or survival. At times, he would need an unbiased but friendly reassurance that he is on the right track. Is there a friendly adviser for Prime Minister Modi?

By P R Kumaraswamy

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