August 01, 2014

Powerful aides keep Modi's premiership on track

GO YAMADA, Nikkei senior staff writer

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi

TOKYO -- The new government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 63, and his Bharatiya Janata Party has gotten off to a reasonably good start. With the unveiling of the fiscal 2014 draft budget on July 10, the government's work to put the economy back to a rapid growth track went into full swing. Now, with the help of powerful aides, Modi is tackling a laundry list of other tough issues, a task made all the more urgent by rising oil prices, a weakening rupee and below-average monsoon rainfall.

     Some of these aides are elite bureaucrats who have passed India's notoriously difficult exams and built their career at various ministries and regional governments. Others are politicians who have worked with Modi for many years.
     Because he became prime minister without any experience in central government, Modi has few connections with national-level political players. But this has allowed him to remain free of entanglements and handpick talented people as his allies. A look at his appointees can provide a glimpse of the future course of Indian politics.

Cream of the crop

Modi appointed Nripendra Misra as principal secretary, the top administrative post at the Prime Minister's Office. Now 69, Misra joined the Indian Administrative Service, the premier civil service in the country, in 1967. He worked as state principal secretary under Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of socialist Samajwadi Party and chief minister of India's largest population state, Uttar Pradesh.

      Misra has years of administrative experience in telecommunications, commerce and agriculture. He also had stints at the Indian Embassy in Washington and the International Monetary Fund. Between 2008 and 2009, he was the head of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI. The government's expectations for Misra are so high that it went to the effort of revising the TRAI law, which banned former heads of the authority from taking up senior posts in the national government.

      He has been criticized as ambitious and attention-seeking, since most top bureaucrats in India stay behind the scenes. He and Modi had never worked together, but the prime minister is believed to have high praise for Misra's career and personality.

      Pramod Kumar Mishra, who joined the IAS in 1972, has assumed the post of Additional Principal Secretary. The 65-year-old served as principal secretary of Gujarat State between 2001 and 2004 and supported Modi, who was the state's chief minister at that time. He then became the secretary of the Union Ministry of Agriculture between 2006 and 2008 and achieved record grain stocks. He returned to Gujarat in 2008 to take up the post of chairman of the Gujarat Electricity Regulatory Commission. He streamlined power transmission and distribution and reformed fee systems to drastically improve electricity supply in the state. He helped bring about robust economic growth that has since been dubbed the "Gujarat Model."

      Among younger aides is the joint secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, Arvind Kumar Sharma. The 52-year-old bureaucrat joined the IAS in 1988. He became Gujarat's joint secretary immediately after Modi became chief minister. He was promoted to secretary in 2004 and served as CEO of the Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board. He took charge of Vibrant Gujarat, an investment promotion event that attracted many foreign companies. He always accompanies Modi in his overseas trips and meetings with business leaders and is said to have won Modi's trust by regularly standing up to formidable state legislators and other politicians.

      The Prime Minister's Office public relations officer is Jagdish Thakkar. The 70-year-old former journalist was Gujarat's PR official from 1989, and he has long been called "Modi's shadow."

Security shift

Ajit Kumar Doval, 69, has become the national security adviser, in charge of the new government's security policy. He replaced diplomat Shiv Shankar Menon, who had close ties with China. The choice of the former police officer for the post indicates that the Modi government will adopt "aggressive" national security policies.

      Doval, who joined the Indian Police Service in 1968, is a former National Intelligence Bureau director with a near-legendary reputation as a "spy boss." During the 1984 siege of the Golden Temple by Sikh militants, Doval reportedly disguised himself as a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agent and sneaked into the temple to find out what was going on. When Islamic militants hijacked an Indian Airlines passenger plane, he led negotiations to secure the release of hostages. More recently, Doval secretly flew to Iraq after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria detained 46 Indian nurses this July. He gathered intelligence from Saudi Arabia and other countries to ensure the release of all hostages.

     His high profile reminds some people of the late Brajesh Mishra, a high-level diplomat who became the first national security advisor when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee created the post. Mishra, who died in 2012, worked hard to improve India's relations with China and Pakistan, and went on to become a powerful figure in the government.

Longtime ally

Modi's right-hand man, though, is not an elite bureaucrat. Amit Shah has worked with Modi for years. The 50-year-old led the BJP's campaign in Uttar Pradesh in the general election held between April and May. The state had long been an unassailable stronghold of a local party. But under Shah's leadership, the BJP won 71 of its 80 seats. The election success earned him BJP presidency in July.
      Shah joined India's largest Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and became acquainted with Modi, who had joined RSS in the early 1980s. He joined BJP in 1986 and was elected to the Gujarat state assembly in 1997. Since 2002, he held such positions as state minister of home affairs, transport and justice under Modi. He was appointed BJP's general secretary in 2012.
     But Modi's closest aide is also one of his most controversial. While he was state home minister, Shah was arrested over his alleged involvement in the killing of Islamist activists. The trial is pending.


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Anonymous said...

Well said