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A change of tack: Is the Modi government being more open this year?

Atul Chaurasia | Updated on: 8 July 2016, 1:37 IST

There seems to be a marked difference in the character of the central government from the time it came into being in 2014 to the current expansion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Cabinet.

Back in 2014, it was viewed as the most secretive and centralised dispensation since independence. The doors of ministries, including the PMO, were shut for journalists. There were speculations galore that even the Home Minister, the post second only to the Prime Minister, did not have much say in the functioning of the government.

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The Home Secretary, who is the bureaucratic head of the ministry, was changed twice. The whisperings in the power corridors suggested that the Home Minister was not taken into confidence before being shunted out. Modi reportedly summoned another minister during a meeting with an industrialist at a five-star hotel in Delhi.

Touting 'minimum government, maximum governance' as his mantra, Modi had constituted a smaller Council of Ministers as compared to his predecessors. One of the motives was to keep the power centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister for effective decision-making.

Two years ago, Modi was still a stranger to the echelons of power in Delhi. Unlike most previous prime ministers, he had catapulted to the top post after proving his credentials on the regional turf of Gujarat. The ways and norms of the power structure of the national capital were unknown to Modi - not only was he unfamiliar with them, but uncomfortable.

In the words of TV anchor Arnab Goswami, Modi was an "outsider in Lutyens Zone's cosy club".

Back in 2014, even the Home Minister barely had any say in the functioning of the govt

Modi's unsavoury relationship with media had further made his initial steps appear a bit jittery. Call it self-restraint or lack self-confidence, but this was the reason he had kept the domestic media at bay for his first two years in office.

However, the Cabinet expansion and some other recent development indicate a palpable change in the style of functioning of the government.

People associated with day-to-day activities of the government suggest that there is a new openness. Decisions are no longer made behind iron curtains.

One might assume that it is a far more confident government today as compared to 2014.

Borrowing again from Arnab Goswami's lexicon, Modi's equation with the "Lutyens Zone's cozy club" seems to have improved during the past two years. Well, at least with a section of that exclusive coterie.

A decentralisation of power

Modi managed the affairs of the government with 51 ministers for two years. That meant more power was concentrated in his hands. Now, a Council of 78 ministers is likely to result in the devolution of this power. It clearly suggests the Prime Minister is willing to repose more trust in his colleagues now.

Modi has mostly chosen low-key and down-to-earth leaders as his new ministers. In fact, two of these ministers - Arjun Meghwal and Mansukh Mandaviya - arrived for the oath-taking ceremony riding bicycles.

People associated with day-to-day activities of the government suggest that there is a new openness

Terming the Cabinet expansion as a positive development, a senior journalist who's covered various ministries says, "Leaders like Meghwal and Manadviya have always been easily accessible. They have enjoyed a good relationship with the media unlike some of the present ministers. Their induction into the government will definitely improve its dialogue with the media."

The same journalist claims to have noticed several positive changes in many ministries during past few months. "Officials of most ministries had stopped interacting with outsiders as they were afraid of being monitored. But, now they are once again calling people and discussing policies," he says.

The impact of the Cabinet reshuffle

The Ministry for Human Resources Development (HRD) has attracted most attention after PMO during the past two years, albeit mostly for wrong reasons. Many journalists share stories of how Smriti Irani had turned this ministry into an impenetrable citadel, much like the PMO. Her rude and arrogant behaviour had become an established fact in power corridors.

Even RSS leaders were apparently unhappy with Irani's behaviour.

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In contrast, the new HRD Minister Prakash Javdekar is known for his politeness. He is known to enjoy cordial relations with the media. It goes to Javdekar's credit that his previous tenure in Environment Ministry was unblemished.

He only came under fire twice. The first was when he was criticised for using a SUV bought in the name of Odisha's forest department. The second time, it was for exempting Adani's Mundra port from its Rs 200 crore fine. Yet, he never lost his cool and maintained healthy ties with the journalists.

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The Prime Minister and the media

Modi's aversion to a section of media needs no description. This was the reason PMO was virtually made a prohibited zone for the scribes after his ascension to power. He still hasn't appointed a media advisor.

The Prime Minister chose to talk only to a selected media houses on the first anniversary of his government. However, there seems to be a shift in his media strategy during the second year in office.

Modi first gave an account of his performance in an interview to the Wall Street Journal. It was followed by a meeting with the leading editors of the country. His interview was published in many popular newspapers of the country. He has also said that these interactions with the media would continue in the future.

Although, not yet sufficient, it is still a step in the right direction. The second year of Modi government is clearly more stable, open and liberal than the previous year.

But can it be termed as a permanent change? Is it sufficient? It's perhaps still too early to answer these questions. Maybe we'll get our answer next year with anniversary No. 3.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 8 July 2016, 1:37 IST
Atul Chaurasia @beechbazar

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