Modi's weakness: Selecting the right person for the right job?

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 11, 2018 13:14 hrs
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In my view, Modi has been the best prime minister of India. His relentless efforts to improve the lot of the countrymen through economic measures, social reforms, health coverage, housing for the poor and infra-structural development deserve praise. His has been, by far, the most corruption-free government and Modi has done India proud by raising its stature in the world arena.

However, Modi’s biggest failure has been his inability to select the right person for the key jobs. Governance is a group effort. No leader, howsoever hard working he may be, can deliver by himself. He needs a team to implement the policies and oversee execution of programmes. Selecting right man for the right job is thus the key to successful leadership. Modi’s track record in this respect has not been up to the mark.

Take the case of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It has seen five heads during a short period of four years. Prakash Javadekar held the charge for a while. Then, Arun Jaitly headed the ministry from 2014 to 2016. He handed over the responsibility to Venkaiah Naidu whose tenure was short lived due to his elevation as the Vice President in 2017. Smriti Irani looked after the ministry from July 2017 to May 2018. Modi soon realised his mistake and asked her to hand over the charge to Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.

The Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation is the apex body for the formulation and administration of rules and regulations relating to the development and regulation of the water resources in India. It is also the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Namami Gange (National Mission for Clean Ganga) is a pet project of Modi and, yet, he erred in selecting Uma Bharti to head the ministry. As a result, limited progress could be achieved in over three years (May 2014 to Sep 2018).

Uma Bharti may be a very sincere, dedicated and assiduous worker. She tried her best but the challenges proved to be too enormous for her to handle. The ministry needed a person of stature with a proven track record to synergise, harmonise and administer complex programmes involving multiple agencies.

In September 2018, Modi had to turn to Nitin Gadkari, an indefatigable go-getter and an achiever par excellence, to shoulder additional responsibility. But by then, three long years had been wasted.

The choice of Smriti Irani as HRD minister was an act of gross miscalculation. One wonders as to how Modi could consider her for such a key ministry. She neither possessed necessary academic background nor had demonstrated any special flair for complex educational issues. Worse, she did not have the required maturity and stature. As a party spokesperson, she excelled with her command of the languages, articulating in a confident, eloquent and persuasive manner. But these traits are of peripheral use in steering the nation’s march towards educational excellence.

In the HRD ministry, she adopted an aggressive and abrasive approach. As per the media reports, she treated the intelligentsia, scholars, academicians and educationists of repute without due deference. Instead of drawing benefit from their vast knowledge and long experience, she treated them like a bunch of ignoramus nitwits. She made them wait for long and the meetings invariably got reduced to one way dialogue with Smriti Irani counselling the vice chancellors on efficient running of the universities. She was a total failure, but Modi waited for two long years before moving her out to the textile ministry. HRD being a vital ministry, Modi must have rued his decision.

Finally, Modi’s failure to choose a suitable leader has done maximum harm to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The responsibility for India’s national defence is discharged through MoD, which provides the policy framework and wherewithal to the armed forces. For the first six months, he asked Arun Jaitley, the most over-worked minister in the cabinet, to oversee the defence ministry as an interim measure. Jaitley tried his best but could not devote adequate time and the ministry suffered. The bureaucrats had a free run.

In November 2014, Manohar Parrikar was pulled out of Goa politics to head the ministry. A man of impeccable character and reputation; he was a mature, clear-headed, compassionate and well-mannered minister. He established rapport with all and was generally well-liked. However, being a political light weight at Delhi, he could achieve little. Neither the obstinate bureaucracy nor the entrenched interest-groups allowed him to implement his programmes.

Due to political compulsions, Parrikar had to move back to Goa in March 2017. Once again, Arun Jaitly was asked to assume the mantle of the ministry. After six months, Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed defence minister in September 2017.

It took the whole country by surprise. From being a national spokesperson of the party to heading the defence ministry in a short period of three years was a huge leap. More so, as she had displayed no extraordinary leadership qualities or flair for security matters. Her performance in the commerce ministry had been mediocre.

It appears that the government decided to appoint a woman defence minister to flaunt empowerment of the weaker sex. Thus, her selection was not merit-based but was governed by political patronage and populist expediency. She carried no credentials. She is one of the five members of the country’s most powerful decision making body: Cabinet Committee on Security which is responsible for all issues pertaining to external and internal security. One wonders as to what contribution she can ever make to such an overarching body.

Nirmala Sitharaman has been in the chair for about nine months and her tenure is already been compared to that of Antony, except that she is more visible in photo-shoots. Inertia, lethargy, lassitude and complacency continue to dog the defence ministry, as before. The ministry is totally dysfunctional and not a single measure of consequence has been initiated so far. The defence procurement procedure remains unreformed and the policy on strategic partnership has made no headway.

The much hyped Make in India has been a non-starter. Granting of ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ to a multitude of acquisition proposals is of no consequence in the absence of assured financial support and the necessary follow up action.

As is well known, defence ministry is a citadel of bureaucracy and is totally devoid of professionalism. Trust deficit between the bureaucracy and the services is alarming. In such an environment, the ministry needed a mature and seasoned leader to provide guidance.

Unfortunately, due to her naivete, Sitharaman is totally at sea. She is being led by bureaucrats, much to the chagrin of the services. Interestingly, Nirmala Sitharaman has the unique distinction of being the first ever defence minister to support curtailment of the defence budget. But then her compulsions can be understood. How could she fault her mentor, finance minister Jaitley?

It is a common saying that whenever an unequipped person is unexpectedly put in the chair of authority, his personality undergoes three discernible changes. One, unduly rapid promotion gives him a misplaced sense of self-importance. Two, to hide own inadequacies, he tends to be imperious in his interactions, bordering on arrogance. Three, inability to carry out the designated job makes him meddle into silly issues to justify existence and show authority. Both Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman prove the adage.

The appointment of the defence minister is too serious a matter to be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. India needs a defence minister who can speed up procurements, upgrade the defence potential and improve the morale of the forces. Instead of resolving a multitude of challenges facing her ministry, Nirmala Sitharaman spends time on closing and opening cantonment roads. Security being a local military matter, the issue should have been best left to the discretion of the local commanders, as was done earlier.

As all assignments have their own characteristic attributes, the selection criteria for every appointment must be evolved meticulously. Key appointments cannot be patronage-based. The inability to choose competent persons with proven track record to head key ministries has been a major weakness of Modi administration. As selection of the right person for the right job is a function of command/leadership, Modi cannot escape responsibility. The buck stops with him.

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Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD, commanded an Engineer Regiment on the Siachen Glacier, the most hostile battlefield in the world. A highly qualified officer (B Tech, MA (Public Administration), MSc (Defence Studies) and a Doctorate in Public Administration) he was also the Task Force Commander at Pokhran and was responsible for designing and sinking shafts for the nuclear tests of May 1998.

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