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Trust in institutions is going down and audiences want to connect withpersonalities, was what Pierre Omidyar, e-bay founder and one of the reigningdeities of the digital world that we have come to occupy, said when he decidedto fund Glen Greenwald’s journalism venture last year after the latter shookthe world with his exposés on the global surveillance regime run by the UnitedStates and the United Kingdom. The world over, in fields ranging from politicsto business and sports to media, the emphasis on personalities as a substitutefor institutions is an evident trend, even as governments, and bodies rangingfrom the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) to Federation Internationale deFootball Association (FIFA) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to theUnited Nations are facing serious questions of credibility and relevance.Strong personalities can strengthen institutions that they represent, butwhether they can be a replacement for institutions is a question that comes upoccasionally. The emergence of Narendra Modi as a strong Prime Minister, whowon the election on the slogan ‘Is baar Modi Sarkar’ (it’sa Modi government this time) brings this question to the fore once again.

Though Mr. Modi’s campaign was highly personality centric, towards its lastleg and in speeches after winning the election, he seemed particularlyconscious of the need to whittle down that narrative. Mr. Modi made a series ofpronouncements that appeared to deny himself the supremacy that he claimed onlyweeks earlier. At the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentary partymeeting, where he broke down, Mr. Modi said he owed everything to the party andprotested L.K. Advani’s reference that he was “being kind to the party.” Beforehe walked into Parliament house, he said it was the “temple of democracy”;later, in his first speech in Parliament, he said he valued the role of theOpposition and went to the extent of saying, “without your support, my mandateis incomplete.”

He has repeatedly declared that he is not above criticism and even exhortedthe media to keep an eagle eye on his actions. Mr. Modi also appeared keen todispel the notion that he centralised authority. In several interviews he hasemphasised the point that as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, he had little day-to-daywork as “all works were delegated,” and “systems and processes have been in putin place.”

Mr. Modi’s apparent inclination to tone down the personality cult thatsurrounds him, in favour of institutional solutions has led to variousresponses over the recent weeks. Some have said it is Modi version 2.0; someothers have said Mr. Modi has always been like this switching over from“campaign mode” immediately after elections to “governance mode.” Another grouphas warned him against the temptation to follow in Mr. Vajpayee’s footsteps toseek the middle path, and advised him to stay his course of being the greatdisrupter. The real situation that Mr. Modi holds out to the nation is a bitmore complex than any of these views.

Even before Mr. Modi’s personality added a new dimension to the question,many have viewed the BJP’s attitude toward institutions of parliamentarydemocracy with suspicion. The BJP manifesto of 2009 said: “Leaders like BalGangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi andothers who spearheaded the freedom movement … had a vision to reconstruct thepolitical and economic institutions of India as a continuum of thecivilisational consciousness which made India one country, one people and onenation. It is unfortunate that the leaders of independent India quicklydiscarded this vision and continued to work with the institutional structurescreated by the British ….” The party did not say this in its 2014 manifesto,but it is unclear whether the BJP has formally given up its opposition to“foreign” institutions as it reinvents itself as a globalising political force.

Mr. Modi’s emergence takes place against the backdrop of the awfulweakening of the institution of the Prime Minister. His predecessor ran agovernment in which ministers ran their own environment and telecom policy. Theweakening of the institution of the Prime Minister used to be a recurring andvalid critique in many speeches of the then Leader of the Opposition in theRajya Sabha and now senior Minister, Arun Jaitley. It is a different matterthat the BJP also found ingenious ways of undermining the institution such asMr. Modi making a speech in 2013, parallel to the Prime Minister’s customary IndependenceDay address to the nation from Red Fort.

Therefore, the case of re-establishing prime ministerial authority cannotbe overstated and Mr. Modi has made a good beginning. In a stern message to hisministerial colleagues, he has barred them from handpicking private secretariesas they please. Personal staff and ministers often form a cabal that ruinsnorms of good governance by extending networks based on caste, linguistic orfinancially vested interests across various arms of the government and strikingat the root of this rot has been a long overdue reform. The dubious role playedby some private secretaries of ministers in the sensational scams of the UnitedProgressive Alliance (UPA) regime is still fresh. But this cannot and must notbe an excuse for undermining another institution that is the Council ofMinisters.

As it stands today, there is little scope for any genuine discussion ormultiplicity of opinions in the council, as Mr. Modi lords it over them. Willhe allow them to grow as leaders and decision-makers in their own right? In hispursuit of establishing the authority of the institution of the Prime Minister,is he mindful of the authority of the Council of Ministers that theConstitution says is “collectively responsible to the house of the people?”

The Modi government has pushed back on the autonomy of another crucialinstitution, the judiciary, by rejecting one name it recommended forappointment as a Supreme Court judge. The merits of the recommendation and therejection apart indeed there is an ongoing debate on the desirability of judgesappointing themselves the government’s refusal to accept the Supreme Courtcollegium’s unanimous recommendation does not bode well for the institutionalprestige of the judiciary. Available indications are that the judiciary islikely to cede to the government’s line rather than assert itself.

In his dealings with his own party, the BJP, Mr. Modi has already made itclear who the boss is. In a meeting of party office-bearers recently, calledfor at the Prime Minister’s residence, he has listed out the dos and don’tswith a firm message that their interactions with the media must be restricted.

Indications are that this government’s engagement with the media is goingto be limited. There is no disputing the fact that practices such as privilegedaccess in exchange for motivated coverage and journalists doubling up aspolitical and corporate dealmakers have thoroughly corrupted the terms ofengagement between the media and the government. But is that good enough reasonfor the government to make communication a one-sided affair in whichannouncements will come on the website, with no scope for questioning orexplaining?

The authority of some other institutions such as the Central VigilanceCommission (CVC) and the future Lok Pal is going to be weakened for anotherreason. As there is no designated Leader of the Opposition, the decisions onappointments to these bodies will be taken without the Opposition playing anyrole.

The checks and balances offered by institutions working within theconstitutional scheme is the bedrock of democracy. The Council of Ministers iscollectively accountable to Parliament; then there is the judiciary and otherautonomous bodies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the CVC,and outside government, there are political parties, the media and civilsociety organisations.

The concept of checks and balances has become dysfunctional in recent yearsdue to the aggressive overreach of some institutions and the correspondingcaving in of some others, depending on personalities at the helm. While theauthority and majesty of the office of the Prime Minister has to be asserted,and in fact, reclaimed from usurpers such as the CAG, the autonomy and prestigeof other institutions must not be diminished in the process.

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