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Why PM needs a State of the Union-style stock-taking

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
March 01, 2016 08:24 IST
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The prime minister should take a leaf out of the American tradition of a State of the Union address wherein the head of government reviews the administration’s legacy and its efficiency as it relates to the state of politics and society, opines T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the presentation of Union Budget 2016-17 in the Lok Sabha. Photograph: PTI

Budget day provides an occasion to take stock of the government's finances.

A day or two before that, the Economic Survey takes stock of the entire economy.

Likewise, a little later, the defence and home ministries' annual reports provide an account of where things stand on national security and governance. Other ministries also table their annual reports.

Together these reports effectively summarise the state of affairs in the country in different sectors.

As a result, by the end of the Budget session, everyone has a fairly clear idea of where the country stands in terms of the economy, governance, security, social sectors, industry, and even animal welfare.

Sadly, no such official stock-taking is done either for the political side or the social attitudes side in India.

There is no government assessment of those right-left, progressive-conservative, hai-tauba, hallelujah things.

That task is left to partisan commentators and academics whose access to real time information is nil.

One lot says everything is going downhill; another says the opposite. Their contributions are an ode to what statisticians call the confirmation bias.

For the most part, these people write and talk uni-focal, uni-dimensional stuff. For each pro, there is an exact con; for each assertion, there is a precise counter-assertion.

It is no surprise therefore that depending on pre-conceptions and prejudices a distorted picture of India emerges, ranging from ‘all is well’ to ‘nothing is well’.

This leads to utter confusion, especially intellectual confusion. We can see it all around us now.

So I have a suggestion for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His office, as the only one which has a 360-degree perspective based on real-time information, should also prepare an annual report.

Idea, Sirjee!

This report should summarise the state of affairs in the current political attitudes -- not political scene -- of India and the social trends in its society.

What we need is a thoughtful official summary -- along the lines of various annual reports -- from the Prime Minister's Office whose objective should be to make available a sober, adjective-free assessment of what the PM thinks is happening, instead of it coming second-hand from ministers or third-hand from his or her favourite journalists. (Sometimes, though, it is the other way round: it comes second-hand from journalists and third-hand from ministers).

For example, we never knew how Manmohan Singh saw things. Or, for that matter, any of the previous prime ministers.

The result is gossip, most of it completely nonsensical or deliberately planted. It helps no one, least of all the PM.

Modi is an exception. He is on Facebook and Twitter and does that Mann ki Baat thing on radio.

But he is exhortatory by nature, always playing a latter-day Napoleon goosing his lazy and reluctant troops to cross the Pyrenees.

We have no idea of his real assessment of social and political trends in the country.

Does he genuinely believe that a bunch of students playing silly buggers in universities are a threat to India?

Citizens, especially in a system that has already become presidential, need a glimpse into the way the prime minister sees things and thinks about them.

Where does Mr Modi stand, say, on the social consequences of flexible labour markets and an increased role for private finance -- or what is now derisively called the Hindu Left?

As it happens, he is quite the little Leftist on economic issues -- closer even to the Communists than to the Congress.

But does the country know this?

Indeed, most people think the opposite about him, that he is the great white hope for capitalist development in India.

Not the real thing

Arguably the President's speech to Parliament before the Budget session serves the aforementioned purpose.

But having heard and read around 30 of them since 1985 they only tell you what the government thinks and not what the PM thinks.

The two, be assured, can be and are quite different, especially when you have coalitions, whether or not led by a single dominant party.

Thus, Dr Singh was very right-wing in his economic policies but curbed his natural instincts.

Modi is exactly that in his social policies but is keeping his preferences hidden, just as Dr Singh had to.

This results in even more confusion because of the Kissingerian 'plausible deniability' which is inherent in the situation.

Prime ministers like to hide behind this ambiguity and always end up messing up.

There has been only one exception to this: Jawaharlal Nehru. He not only spoke his mind, he also wrote those extensive letters to chief ministers which left no one in any doubt about what he really thought about what sort of country India should be.

Modi has no time for Nehru-type letters -- but surely he can produce at least an annual report along the lines suggested above?

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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan in New Delhi
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