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Winter washout: Why was Modi so stubborn?

By B S Raghavan
December 17, 2016 09:31 IST
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'Modi has lost a great opportunity to show himself to be a leader, mentor and path-setter, capable of rising above narrow party interests,' says B S Raghavan, the distinguished civil servant.

A television grab of the disruption in Parliament during the winter session.In an article, 'Modi should rise above being a mere Prime Minister' published on November 4, 2015 on, I had said: 'I believe that Narendra Modi has unparalleled gifts which can make a phenomenal difference in shaping the nation's destiny. In him, we have a charismatic persona who can inspire. He can do wonders if only he dons the mantle of the leader, mentor and path-setter of the nation and for all its people, instead of remaining content with being a mere PM belonging to one of the many political parties...'

'If Narendra Modi were like Madame Tussaud's wax statue ala Manmohan Singh, his silence (on matters that agitate the people) can be taken as his second nature. But he is so very profusely vocal and eloquently articulate on so many subjects and unambiguously expresses himself in public and on social media within India and abroad...'

'He should set goals for the nation in respect of norms of conduct and make his general philosophy and approach known to the people at large in respect of events and incidents...'

All the great leaders of yore -- Gandhiji, Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Kamaraj and C Subramaniam -- were willing to don this noble mantle of leadership, indicative of their willingness to submit themselves to the requirements of transparency and accountability.

I am sure that Narendra Modi has abounding respect and admiration for all of them and studied their lives and times. And yet, alas, I find that there is little evidence so far of any impact on him of their example.

In my opinion, he has to bear almost the entire responsibility for the winter session of Parliament having become a washout, with no light thrown from his side on the precise measures taken, or being taken, to mitigate the untold hardships resulting from demonetisation suffered by ordinary people across the length and breadth of the country.

Jawaharlal Nehru, with whom I worked for four years from 1961 to 1964 as the official in charge of the secretariat of the National Integration Council, of which he was the founder-chairperson, would have instantly agreed to a debate without quibbling over Rules, and been present through the whole duration of the debate and replied in detail to the points raised.

Indeed, he would have himself been the first to propose the motion for debate and made the opening speech himself.

Imagine the electrifying effect if Narendra Modi had emulated him, or, at least, himself volunteered to be present in both Houses during the debate, without letting the Opposition make an issue of it.

Alas, Narendra Modi's stubborn refusal to do any of these things has led to the ruckus in both Houses of Parliament on the travails experienced by the people following demonetisation.

He has thereby lost a great opportunity to show himself to be a leader, mentor and path-setter, capable of rising above narrow party interests.

The stature of the office he holds would have vaulted sky-high if only he had conducted himself in tune with the nation's paramount interest on a matter which he and his ministers have lost no occasion to portray as the most revolutionary decision since Independence.

Whatever the omissions and commissions of the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh during 2004 to 2014, there is no question that he himself is an erudite person of the utmost sincerity.

He is also one who consciously avoids the use of harsh or hyperbolic expressions that come easy to India's politicians. He no doubt is in the Congress, but he is less a Congressman and more a concerned professional committed to the public weal. As such, his views expressed both in his speech in the Lok Sabha and his article in The Hindu, are entitled to great respect.

The only part of his speech with which I do not agree is his description of demonetisation as 'a case of organised loot and legalised plunder of the common people.' Otherwise, in all other respects, he has hit the bull's eye.

As he said, '...the way this scheme has been implemented is a monumental management failure... That reflects very poorly on the prime minister's office, on the finance minister's office and on the Reserve Bank of India.'

It is puzzling that the prime minister has failed to comprehend that a policy is only as good as its implementation.

For instance, honesty is the best policy, but that pronouncement becomes purposeless if a government turns out to be one of, by and for the crooks.

Dr Singh aptly quoted the aphorism visualising such situations: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

In regard to demonetisation, the necessity to maintain secrecy should not have prevented the prime minister from satisfying himself beforehand that enough stocks of currency to replace the demonetised notes were available to tide over the dislocation that would undoubtedly be caused, so that the government was not caught off guard, as it has been.

There was absolutely no need for introducing notes of the denomination of Rs 2000, and that too in a size that rendered the whole lot of 200,000 ATMs dysfunctional at one fell swoop and is likely to keep them so for months.

In these respects, though the prime minister bears the ultimate responsibility for not asking the right questions, principally it is the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the mandarins of the finance ministry that are to be blamed for not displaying a sense of anticipation and not preparing the ground properly in advance.

A full-fledged debate in both Houses of Parliament with the prime minister and most of the Cabinet ministers present followed by a thoughtful reply by the prime minister would have helped in letting off steam and had a soothening effect, besides making the session productive in discharging the rest of the business on its agenda.

Instead, the government chose a course, lacking in imagination, which it must have known would be fraught with the kind of ugly developments that have blighted the session.

B S Raghavan is a former civil servant of the West Bengal IAS cadre, policy adviser to the UN (FAO) and US Congressional Fellow, besides having been director of political and security policy planning in the Union home ministry.

He also worked with the first three prime ministers as the head of the secretariat of the National Integration Council of which they were the chairpersons. He was also close to Dr B C Roy and Jyoti Basu, chief ministers of West Bengal.

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