Narendra Modi: One Man Army

Today Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister, leader of more than a billion people. He is solidly in the driver’s seat and the level of public expectation is huge. Despite his evident success, the perception remains that he is a solo player, a One Man Army!

By Jayanta Ghosal

Once upon a time, Narendra Modi used to stay in Delhi most of the time.  Keshubhai Patel was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Narendra bhai was the organisational Prabhari of Himachal Pradesh. I used to meet him quite frequently in the party office of BJP at Ashoka Road.

At the time, I found that he had tremendous charisma and powers of influence. Keshu Bhai had become very unpopular. Even someone like LK Advani realized that the discontent against the Chief Minister was very acute and there was a need for change in the Gujarat Chief Ministerial politics.

I have been witness to how the majority of the MLAs were completely mesmerized by Narendra bhai. They all supported the young turk and felt that he had the required team leadership, that had been hitherto hidden.

Modi is the man of ideas and Amit Shah is the man of operations. Between the two of them, one serves as the CEO (Modi) and Shah is the Chief Operations Officer

Today, he is the Prime Minister of this big nation. He is in the driving seat and the level of expectation from him is huge. He never got the support from the English media, but despite his success, even today, there is a perception that he’s a solo player – a one man army.

This style of political leadership is common in our country, for instance, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh or Mamta in West Bengal. But in BJP, this is a new thing.

While Vajpayee was the PM, Pramod Mahajan had once told me, “You know in the Congress, it’s easy to take a decision. As there is always one leader who makes the decision. Ever since Gandhi, there has always been one sole authority in the party,” he told me. “There are no branches”, he explained and added, “In the BJP, the scene is reversed.

We have a team of five to six leaders – apart from Vajpayee, Advani, Joshi, Jaswant – there’s also the RSS and their leadership. These are all determining factors. It’s democracy, but it’s this oligarchy that creates more trouble.”

Is it just a change of name? From being the Gandhi family’s leadership, is it NaMo’s leadership? While this may be a general perception, I have a caveat – actually Modi is the ‘first among equals’ of the cabinet. I know that he takes the final call, but he always discusses all the major issues and strategies with his team and doesn’t think twice about taking advice from experts.

NaMo has a political core team. He has several advisors, who form an unseen core group – consisting of Mr Arun Jaitley and BJP president Amit Shah. The second layer comprises Nitin Gadkari and Ravi Shankar.

But interestingly, he’s also consulting Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh and Venkaiyah Naidu.

So, the most important address for Delhi is 7, Race Course Road, where our PM is living. But it’s very clear that for ministers and bureaucrats, no one can take their proximity to the PM for granted. 

Among officials, who are the closest to him personally? What constitutes the actual team? I think the members include Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary and A K Sharma – who is the Joint Secretary and hails from Gujarat. Sharma was earlier additional Principal Secretary to Narendra Modi when the latter was chief minister of Gujarat.

Narendra Modi has a unique style of functioning, he is a work-oriented person and also a good taskmaster

He had joined the CMO in October 2001 as joint secretary soon after Modi took over as chief minister. Sanjay Bhaveshwar is the private secretary now. Apart from Sanjay, he brought his old Public Relations officer, Jagdish Thakkar, to the PMO. A lot of people thought that NaMo would bring K Kailashnatham to Delhi. He was popularly known as KK in Gandhinagar and he was the chief Principal Secretary, but Modi kept him in Gujarat.

His logic is that KK is the main bridge between Gandhinagar CMO and the PMO. He is the bridge between the PM and the CM. But he brought Sanjay, the next man to KK instead. 

In Delhi, Bharat Lal is the Resident Commissioner of Gujarat in Delhi. He is the man friday of NaMo – an Indian Forest Service officer. In fact, for the first leg, just after the oath taking ceremony rather even before that, Bharat Lal was there. He was always with PM, but much later did he understand the role of ‘Bharat Lal’.

He remained the Resident Commissioner, but his role is very, very significant and important. He remained the man to track NaMo before elections. He also fixed and facilitated a number of meetings between NaMo and foreign diplomats, people of industry and policy makers as well as think tanks.

Before the US Visit, Bharat Lal silently went to New York and organized a lot of preparatory aspects of NaMo’s visit. A low profile man like Bharat Lal is also a trusted lieutenant of NaMo. 

There are a few characters, who the general mass doesn’t know about, but in NaMo’s life, they continue to play a very important role. Say for instance, Om Prakash – popularly known as OP. He is an honest, simple man, a low profile character who accompanies his boss everywhere. He knows which phone call he has to allow to his boss, and which has to be shunned.

He understands his boss and his needs; what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants it. Whenever NaMo travels, there is a team. Either OP or Dinesh, usually accompany him. Tanmay is also in the PMO. He monitors all the media coverage, especially, the different media channels and gives his inputs to the boss.

Let us come back to the political core group role. The first person to be discussed is Mr Arun Jaitley. Before the elections, NaMo became very close to him and depended on him greatly. Arun is also the Rajya Sabha MP from Gandhinagar and Arun Jaitley – a very intelligent mind, is the only Minister, who can read all the agendas of all the files of the cabinet meetings – a day before the meeting. He has a legal brain and his connections & networking power in Delhi is fantastic.

In fact he knows the Delhi’s elite clientele better than Modi and is in know of the fact that this Delhi up market society is a very important factor in the decision making process. 

After Arun, we should discuss Amit Shah. People say that he’s virtually the alter ego of Modi. My personal take on this, as an onlooker of the BJP politics for the last decade, is slightly different.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – no characters are not identical. But this combination is what in political circles is known as the ‘deadly combo’. It is a two-in-one strategy. They have an extraordinary relationship and immense mutual respect and in the Delhi BJP office, they refer to Amit as the number 2, to Modi’s number 1.

Modi is the man of ideas and Amit Shah is the man of operations. Between the two of them, they serve as the CEO of the country (Modi) and Shah as the Chief Operations Officer. Amit Shah has achieved this status gradually. I recall the days when I used to go to Gujarat with the then deputy PM, LK Advani. At the time, Narendra Bhai was the CM. Amit Shah was a junior party leader of BJP in Gujarat. But through his capability in terms of strategy, he became a very important and close associate of NaMo.

I think, Modi + Amit + Arun, these characters are the main determiners of today’s media. Apart from them, three other important characters are Nitin Gadkari – as he is close to Nagpur RSS and has a perfect relationship with the PM.

If he wasn’t trusted, then he could not have had these important portfolios on infrastructure. It is not only his RSS background or his incredible past as a minister in Maharashtra but also the fact that he is also a businessman and understands the Mumbai business mantra.

Ravi Shankar Prasad is another interesting Bihari character in the Delhi Durbar. He is a consensus man, low profile but articulate and a bilingual speaker. He was a minister during Vajpayee’s government as well. He has had previous experience of governances too.

He is a Kayasth leader of BJP from Bihar, and is a Bihari babu. He silently graduated himself to become the national face of BJP. He was also the chief spokesman for the BJP and before the elections; he became the spokesman for the government.

Prakash Javadekar, as the Environment Minister and Piyush Goyal, as the Power Minister, are young and active faces. Another young man, Dharmedra Pradhan – the petroleum minister is a growing important character of the government.

But, I don’t underestimate the role that Sushma Swaraj continues to play and also, Rajnath Singh. I don’t buy the idea, that although, they are in the cabinet committee of security but they are not getting that much relevance in Modi’s cabinet. The reality is different.

It is true that Sushma and Rajnath had aspired for the PM. Once Sushma clarified this matter in an interview, “there may be several aspirants for the job, but when the party decides the name of the leader – we are ready to accept the party’s decisions”. That is the spirit of democracy, interestingly there is a working relationship between the two which is quite good.

One MEA official told me, “we were also skeptic in the initial phase, but gradually we understood that NaMo has taken her into confidence”. And, Sushma is also very careful not to disturb the relationship. She knows that foreign policy is always determined by the PM.

That is the usual practice in the world. One senior officer told that when Sushma took charge, a number of media correspondents – in our country and abroad – wanted to interview her. There were a number of big names, but she told the official that, “My PM is not giving interviews. He wants to act first, I should follow my PM. Let’s do some work first. For the past 10 years, there was a policy paralysis in diplomacy as well. Let’s build-up, the momentum first, and then I will think about the interviews.”

Rajnath Singh is the designated number 2 and when Modi left for the US, Cabinet Secretary issued an order that in the absence of the PM, Rajnath will hold the Cabinet Meetings. It also happened that there was a need for the cabinet meeting for the imposition of President’s rule in Maharashtra and Rajnath handled it.

Narendra Modi has a unique style of functioning, he is a work oriented person and also a good task master. A lot of people are asking me – Is Modi at the centre of the PMO – tripping up other ministers?

Even before he became the PM, Narendra Modi had a reputation of being the power centre, when he was the CM and his office rendered almost every other minister completely toothless and incapable of taking any independent decisions.

But we shouldn’t be unfair to NaMo – it is the time that after 10 years of policy paralysis, we have a performer amongst us, but now we’re wondering if that is a one man show. There are no coalition partners either, BJP itself got the majority and NaMo is ‘the face’.

So, it is true that there is the element of one man army. When Indira Gandhi was the PM, this approach to the governance was there but when Vajpayee became the PM – this style changed. I still remember, Vajpayee was keen to go to Islamabad for the first SAARC summit, after the failure of Agra summit.

Brajesh Mishra, the then Principal Secretary and NSA, Jaswant Singh and even Advani and George Fernandes opposed the proposal. Ultimately, Vajpayee couldn’t attend the SAARC summit. India boycotted the summit. 

But times have changed now, Narendra Modi is the main character of the government. In the coming summit, to be held at Nepal – it’ll be Narendra Modi, who’ll decide whether India will go for bilateral talks or not, and that will be decided by none other than Mr Narendra Modi only.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s not consulting or taking any inputs and opinions from different sectors but he values and follows his own opinion too. I think, this quality of leadership in Modi is unique.

There is a Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind  Subramanian, but do you think, Modi isn’t taking any inputs from any experts? When he was the CM of Gujarat, he used to hold the ‘Vibrant Gujarat summit’. I recall that every year I used to go and see that it was a grand scale show.

He would take opinions from a lot of PR agencies and researchers, economic advisors and industry people. He is a great organizer and another thing that is very important is that he is a very modern man and he understands the appetite of present day. And for Modi to take a country like India, with over a billion citizens, into modernity – he must continue this trend. Delhi and Gandhinagar aren’t the same and for someone to lead the country – he must lead the country as a team. His keeping of the ministerial team to the barest minimum might speak volumes in terms of making a team trim, but expertise has its place.

Modi has been a great achiever – since the last 7 months that he has been in power. One thing is very clear that he is a doer. He wants to change the mindset of this country. The old mind set was more a Nehruvian, Socialistic, public sector mindset. There is a need for review. Modi is silently moving towards a new reform and development mode. Expectation level is very high. The taste of the pudding is in its eating. Let see what direction he proposes and how he directs our nation.

Jayanta Ghosal

Jayanta Ghosal, born in 1962, has been a political journalist for the past four decades. He has worked for the Bengali newspapers Ananda Bazar Patrika and Bartaman, ABP News, India TV, and is now consulting editor, India Today group. Most of his life has been spent in newsrooms. A journalist, writer, teacher and speaker, he is a student of the history, politics, and culture of West Bengal and eastern India. He has authored several books in Bengali about the region and is also a biographer of West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.

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