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Just what does Modi's CCPA do?

By Aditi Phadnis
August 02, 2021 14:49 IST
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While there is no change in the strength of the Modi-led CCPA over its two tenures, what has changed is its profile.
Aditi Phadnis reports.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi to his left with Union Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, and to his right, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Roads Minister Nitin Gadkari and Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar at a Cabinet meeting last month. Photograph: ANI Photo

"It was a very exclusive body," said former minister for external affairs K Natwar Singh, adding for emphasis that "not everyone could be a member. But we discussed everything".

He was referring to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs. As foreign minister, he was a member of the coveted grouping during the early years of the United Progressive Alliance government, led by then prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Natwar Singh recalls that only the defence, home, external affairs and finance ministers were invited to be members of the CCPA during Manmohan Singh's tenure.

By contrast, after the recent rejig of the CCPA by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, Environment and Labour Minister Bhupender Yadav, and Ports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal are now in the CCPA.

This takes the strength of the CCPA to 12 ministers, besides the PM.

While there is no change in the strength of the Modi-led CCPA over its two tenures, what has changed is its profile.

Though the Manmohan Singh government was crucially dependent on alliance partners for its survival, no ally was a member of the CCPA.

Past Modi-led CCPAs have had alliance partners on it: Harsimrat Badal was a member as long as the Shiromani Akali Dal was part of the government.

So was Arvind Sawant from the Shiv Sena, who was minister for heavy industry.

But now, allies in the Modi government, admittedly fewer than before, find no representation on the CCPA.

Over the years, says a bureaucrat who was a member of the Prime Minister's Office during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's tenure, the nature of the CCPA has changed.

Vajpayee dispensed with it altogether.

But during the tenure of Indira Gandhi, it was a virtual extension of the Cabinet, which was deemed to have concurred once the CCPA took a view.

Indira Gandhi's CCPA discussed and decided on all manner of diverse issues.

Recalling his days as a minister in the Indira government, former President, the late Pranab Mukherjee, reminisced that it was the CCPA that took the final call on Operation Blue Star.

'As a student of history, I was afraid to do anything with the Golden Temple. And as a member of the then CCPA, I said at the meeting that it was perhaps the most dangerous decision we were taking,' he said.

The creation of the Indian Air Force's Southern Air Command was the outcome of a CCPA decision: A paper on the formation of SAC was presented to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on July 10, 1984, and the sanction was obtained on July 19, 1984.

Similarly, during the Manmohan Singh years, virtually every decision that could have had a politico-economic impact was referred to the CCPA.

In 2006, when Nepal was in the grips of a Maoist insurgency, the CCPA discussed the crisis facing the country, the role of the monarchy, and the implications for India.

Unusually, the CCPA issued a statement that welcomed the Maoists joining the mainstream and remained pointedly silent on the role of the monarchy.

Only much later did the world understand India's role in the seven-party alliance of political parties that led to Maoist underground leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) becoming prime minister and sharing a tenure with Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba.

That move marked the decisive end to the political role of Nepal's monarchy in the country.

"I remember that we took a very important decision on Nepal," said Natwar Singh, recalling the events.

Interestingly, the CCPA also gradually emerged as a currency of power.

Once Pranab Mukherjee, as defence minister, chaired that meeting of the CCPA in the absence of Manmohan Singh who was abroad.

Much later, he was to tell Business Standard that he called the meeting first and cleared it with the PM later, given the urgency of the situation. Singh, he said, concurred.

There was a collective hiss of disapproval in 2019 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did not figure among ministers who were members of the CCPA.

But this was explained as an administrative oversight and was corrected within 24 hours when the Cabinet Secretariat issued a new list of CCPA members, possibly the only time in history that the CCPA was reconstituted in the space of a day.

The role of the CCPA was in sharp focus during the years P V Narasimha Rao was prime minister.

In November 1992, just before the demolition of Babri Masjid, the PM called five meetings of the CCPA. He was under pressure from a ginger group in the government led by then human resource development Minister Arjun Singh and he ordered that the minister, too, be invited to these meetings though Singh was not a member.

The issue before the CCPA was: Should President's rule be imposed in UP?

'Members of the CCPA, while urging all steps to be taken to prevent damage to the building, did not propose or press on Rao for the imposition of President's rule,' then advisor to PM, the late Naresh Chandra, is quoted as saying in a biography of Narasimha Rao.

Rao's image is that as PM he did nothing while the mosque came down.

But the minutes of the CCPA reveal that Rao's Cabinet colleagues were as unwilling to invoke Article 356.

One of the five November CCPA meetings was held around November 20.

Rao was not present; he was on an official visit to Senegal.

One meeting was even held in Arjun Singh's office, but at none of the meetings did any minister say that Article 356 should be invoked in UP.

No data is publicly available about the number of CCPA meetings held during the seven-year Narendra Modi regime.

"We met at least once a month," said Natwar Singh, "sometimes more and we discussed floods, droughts, issues relating to the governance of states."

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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