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Sheela says: Babudom waits with bated breath: Will it be Modi?

By Sheela Bhatt/
Last updated on: April 17, 2014 18:14 IST
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"Who will be his men?" a distinguished official close to the prime minister asked. Frankly, nobody has an idea. Hardly seven weeks are left for a regime change, but the idea of Narendra Modi on Raisina Hill looks abnormal, if not unreal.'s Sheela Bhatt captures the uncertain mood in the capital's bureaucracy ahead of the largest democratic transfer of power in the world.

The air inside the Prime Minister's Office is heavy. This office has seen many transitions, but the next one seems extraordinary.

If (and the emphasis on If is getting lighter as the days pass) the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance comes to power under Narendra Modi's leadership, then the new prime minister will walk into South Block in less than seven weeks.

Just seven weeks.

And if, in the quite unlikely circumstance of the BJP and Modi's mammoth election campaign proving to be another disaster -- an India Shining Part Two -- then this majestic office will witness political turbulence for which the cosy establishment here is unprepared for after 10 long years of stillness and calm under Dr Manmohan Singh's silent leadership.

This report published on on Wednesday points to the establishment's thought process on Raisina Hill.

These days, wherever you go to the PMO or Shastri Bhavan, you see that infamous animal called the Establishment staring into the wilderness. Few government secretaries have very reluctantly started thinking about: What If Modi Comes...

The jolt is laced with fear and vagueness because Modi is an outsider. Nobody knows him, really. Nobody has met him casually. He is an "unknown commodity".

I was surprised when a distinguished official close to the prime minister asked, "Who will be his men?" Frankly, nobody has an idea. Hardly seven weeks are left for a regime change, but the idea of Modi on Raisina Hill looks abnormal, if not unreal.

In fact, even though a few people have started speculating about Modi's Cabinet and his officials in the PMO, the discussion ends abruptly because their own exposure to Modi is nil.

Some wise men also argue that an unprecedented psychological war is on where Modi's men are creating a "hawa (public perception)" to justify without much real evidence on the ground (where they claim caste politics is in full play) that Modi is a winning horse.

In fact, a senior government official who travelled to see the campaign in a few states says, "The campaign for Election 2014 is a 'virtual campaign' more than a real one. One hardly sees the colours, sound or visuals on the ground."

As a result, as some Congressmen point out, the BJP will attract its core votes plus the crucial floating votes who will buy into the spell cast by the use of money power behind the campaign.

Looking at the way the election campaign and voting are going on all over the country, Delhi's Establishment has surely started accepting that the NDA is set to occupy South Block and North Block, with or without Modi. That for the babus in the central government is now a forgone conclusion.

A senior government official rightly pointed out that Election 2014 has not been about one powerful idea or specific ideology. It is a powerfully scripted political game where Modi has gone for the kill US presidential-style while remaining within the Indian parliamentary framework.

Those who are comfortable only with the Congress party at the helm of affairs think that dark days are descending on New Delhi where the "unknown facet of Modi" will unravel as soon as he occupies the seat of power. The Modi campaign that has spread a magical charm over voters, they feel, will end sooner than later.

In the bureaucracy, there are enough babus who say that after the 2G scam emerged, the government's decision-making machinery has been paralysed. The National Democratic Alliance or Modi, whoever comes to power, will surely revive it. And that will make all the difference to the country and its governance, they claim.

These babus, who are realists, want to know more about the "Modi style of functioning" in order to get ready. Everywhere, one hears a mixed reaction to "Will Modi come or not?" or "Will he falter or not?"

One of the more mature response encountered was from a senior official well-versed with India's foreign policy and Dr Singh's philosophy of governance. "If Modi becomes PM," this official said, "he will fare well for the first 18 months. He will sail smooth on diplomacy because nobody can afford to ignore India, so he will have an advantage. The neighbourhood and even a country like the US will invite him, praise him and he will turn it to his advantage. But his troubles could start after one-and-a-half years, when he will have to take it to the next level."

Some of the most powerful people who have managed the country's affairs in the last 10 years present two options while discussing the current election.

Most of them think:

  • It is more likely that the NDA will come to power without Modi heading it.
  • The second option, they argue, is that Modi will become prime minister leading the NDA.

But, then, this argument, that even if the NDA gets a majority or the NDA cobbles a majority after the election, Modi may not be able to lead it -- is spoken with some confusion.

"Maybe it is our wishful thinking," says an official close to Dr Singh while speaking off the record about the mood in the government.

However, it is to our democracy's credit that whether Modi becomes prime minister or someone from the regional parties supported by the Congress leads the nation or if Modi steps aside for one of his party colleagues, the transfer of power will be smooth and likely to be dignified -- as President Pranab Mukherjee's office has conveyed on more than one occasion that it is all set to go by the rule book, the Constitution.

Already, government departments are preparing notes for the next government. In the PMO, the winding-up process is on. Dr Manmohan Singh's new home, at 3, Motilal Nehru Marg, is almost ready. National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon is all set to shift to his family home. Vikram Misri, Dr Singh's private secretary, has been named as India's ambassador to Spain.

Just when the packing up was going on, Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to the PM, created a flutter in the PMO by advancing the publication of his book on Dr Singh. Baru has torn into the reputation of the prime minister's Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterjee in his book.

Writing about T K A Nair, Chatterjee's predecessor, and Chatterjee, Baru notes, 'I felt that Nair-Pulok was not a patch on the magisterial Brajesh Mishra who ran Vajpayee's PMO with great aplomb.'

The biggest problem the Congress party, Pulok Chatterjee and most of the prime minister's staff have is with Baru implying that government files were shown by Chatterjee to Congress President Sonia Gandhi for her opinion.

Baru claims that Chatterjee, who was inducted into the PMO at Sonia Gandhi's behest, had regular -- almost daily -- meetings with Sonia at which he is said to have briefed her on the key policy issues of the day and sought her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM.

Indeed, Chatterjee was the single-most important point of regular contact between the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi.

The senior official in the PMO rubbishes this, saying, "No file has ever gone to Sonia Gandhi." But, when argued that Chatterjee did brief her, the official said, "No government can run smoothly without coordination between the party and government. It happened in Vajpayee's government, and it happened in P V Narasimha Rao's government when Rao even briefed regularly the leaders of Opposition parties."

Sanjaya Baru may be a symptom of the shooting birth pangs of a new government and the exit of the current government.

Image: Narendra Modi. Photograph: PTI Photo.

Check out: Sheela Bhatt's fascinating columns on Election 2014

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Sheela Bhatt/