The B Factor In Modi Cabinet That Might Just Get Bigger If He Retains Power

by Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

In September 2017, more than three years after the BJP-led NDA stormed to power at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought in a clutch of four former bureaucrats into his ministry – former IAS officers K.J. Alphons and Arjun Ram Meghwal; career diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri and ex-policeman Satya Pal Singh.

Till then, the only ex-civil servant who attended cabinet meetings was the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a former spymaster with long years of experience in handling Pakistan. Besides this, there was the former army chief Gen VK Singh who had been inducted into the cabinet as a junior minister.

Modi’s ministry at that time had stalwarts like Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, and M Venkaiah Naidu as well as bright up-coming politicians like Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal, Ananth Kumar, Sadananda Gowda and Suresh Prabhu. The BJP itself boasted of a long line of leaders who had worked their way up the ranks and were considered good possible candidates for the union cabinet.

When Modi brought the cabal of four ex-babus in, tongues wagged within the party. However, with a two-thirds majority in the lower house, and after winning Uttar Pradesh by a convincing margin, Modi could afford to ignore the aspirations of many politicians who were waiting for that golden opportunity.

There was of course much heartburn within the party and people did murmur.

Nevertheless, Modi broke from the past and decided to bring in fresh blood from outside to buttress the talent pool in his party. Since then he has been regularly inducting one or the other heavy-weight civil servant into his team and as of date has half a dozen of them.

Trend Continued in NDA 2.0

In fact, Modi surprised many when in 2019, after the BJP came back to power with a huge mandate to form NDA 2.0, he had the former Ambassador to the US Subrahmaniam Jaishankar take oath of office before stalwarts like Piyush Goyal and Prakash Javdekar.

The former Indian diplomat was made Minister for External Affairs, a key post which is counted as among the top four jobs in the cabinet after the PM’s. Besides, Jaishankar, his fellow diplomat Puri, and another ex-IAS officer RK Singh were also given plum jobs in the cabinet. Meghwal again retained his seat in the cabinet and two years later they were joined by another former bureaucrat Ashwini Vaishnaw.

There are signs that the prime minister may induct several more if he returns to power in June, as most pollsters say he will.

What Makes ‘Babu’ Ministers Click?

The two former career diplomats, Jaishankar and Hardeep Puri, both of whom were brought in through the Rajya Sabha into the Indian parliament representing Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh respectively, have possibly been the most high profile among the ex-bureaucrats whom Modi chose for his team.

Vaishnaw who looks after the Indian Railways, which moves more people than any other mode of public transport on this planet is perhaps the next high profile bureaucrat-turned minister in the Modi Sarkar.

Vaishnaw was a key hire for the Prime Minister for two more reasons – firstly, as an alumnus of IIT Kanpur he represented the ‘tech brain’ in the cabinet and was consequently given charge of the crucial Communications and Electronics & Information Technology Ministry.

Secondly, he is one of the few bureaucrats who had experience at the top echelons of the private sector and had been a serial entrepreneur himself.  

These three have been often fielded to talk on difficult issues- from petroleum prices to India’s foreign policy to train disasters to communication revolutions - and have become known faces not only in India but also globally.

The difference between the ‘Babu’ Ministers and politicians in the cabinet says one former secretary to the government of India who wished to remain anonymous, is that these officials “work quietly, speak out when asked to, and have no political constituency of their own to nurture”.

In the words of a former chief secretary of a northeastern state, they are in one sense ‘super bureaucrats’ and not politicians in their functional style.  

A politician usually weighs popular reactions, senses the nation's mood, and then decides on a policy. He brings in fresh thoughts which are not present in the huge libraries of files which makes up the collective thought process of India’s myriad bureaucracy. 

A bureaucrat on the other hand weighs what is good or bad for the nation, and draws upon past precedence by recalling older relevant files while not necessarily taking into consideration what is politically palatable or not. In that, he depends on his political master’s judgement.  

Style of functioning

Prime Minister Modi’s style of functioning has been to lean on battery of trusted and empowered bureacrats, to take care of governance and economic management. A strong PMO that cuts through red tape to reach out to departmental secretaries has been a hallmark of his two terms.

More often than not, the final call on a policy on an important issue is taken at the PMO, with the ministries preparing bullet point presentations to help judgements being passed.  

Modi had crafted a strong Chief Minister’s Office during the years he helmed the state of Gujarat. He has chosen continue with that style after moving to New Delhi, as the country's prime minister.

Some feel this style of functioning calls for “professional ministers” who will be able to either guess the PM’s mind or listen to his cues and act as he would want them. Which is where the ‘Babu’ ministers come in.

The normal political practitioner-turned minister has constituencies and sensitivities which forces him to question certain policy initiatives or seek amendments to it. This of course is the strength he brings to the collective wisdom which represents a cabinet.

The Story Elsewhere

However, Prime Minister Modi is not the only political leader in the country who has a strong secretariat or has drawn from the ranks of bureaucrats to form a cabinet. Several other strongmen and women at the helm of affairs in states have followed the same path independently.

Two cases in point are Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee.

Patnaik became chief minister of Odisha in 2000 and has ruled the state ever since. He survived not only attempts by the Congress and BJP to unseat his government but also revolts within his own party. As he progressed, he concentrated power in his chief minister’s office (CMO).

In running the CMO he was ably assisted by V K Pandian, a Tamil Nadu-born IAS officer who joined the Odisha cadre from Punjab after marrying a lady Odiya IAS officer. Pandian came to the CMO in 2011 and served as Patnaik’s private secretary for eight long years helping the Chief Minister get an iron grip on the administration.

His stature grew as he was appointed Secretary 5T or five transformational initiatives, which gave him power to deal with virtually all important ministries in getting the CM’s pet projects implemented. In October last year, Pandian was appointed Chairman of the 5T initiative with the rank of a cabinet minister, just a day after he sought voluntary retirement from the IAS.

Mamata Banerjee also believes in a strong CMO with hand-picked officers who can transmit her orders and thoughts in clear terms and explain various measures which her colleagues are proposing with their pros and cons to her through notes.  

Though she does not have any equivalent to Pandian in her team, she does have former bureaucrats Alapan Bandopadhyay and Gautam Sanyal in her kitchen cabinet. The other key bureaucrat in her set-up is Gautam Sanyal, a central secretariat officer who came with her from the Railway Ministry to helm her office and has been her principal secretary since 2015, even though he has retired from central service.

However, even though Banerjee has made the odd IPS or IAS officer or PSU manager a minister in her cabinet, she has otherwise followed the old Congress culture of grooming politicians for ministerial roles.

In time to come, one may see the B Factor model extending to other parts of the country. As the old adage goes: "Provinces follow the trend set in the capital as far as it is expedient".