Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A lesson from Modi to Trump

Chaotic is perhaps a charitable way to describe President Donald Trump's first two months in office. His defeat at the hands of Democrats as well as his own Republicans on the AHCA in the House, as well as his double defeat in court over his EO on travel from certain countries, have severely dented his image as a 'deal maker'. At this point of time, all he seems to be decent at are signing EOs and talking trash to the media (which is a skill in itself). So where does he go from here?

Trump seems to have underestimated the amount of resistance built into the system that he will have to deal with. In that, he has parallels with Prime Minister Modi after his spectacular victory in 2014 and once-in-a-lifetime parliamentary majority. No sooner did the BJP win that majority did the Opposition decide to turn the Rajya Sabha into a veto against a democratically elected government; indeed, the Upper House is so powerful that the government has time and again resorted to the Money Bill route to bypass the reckless opposition there. In Trump's case, the Presidential system makes this even more complicated, for even though his party enjoys a majority in both houses, they are not beholden to the President. Indeed, in the AHCA case, it was the Republican Party itself that sunk the bill, helped in no small measure by Speaker Ryan's odd tactics (hiding the bill in the basement, for example). In Modi's case, the government had to eventually buy peace with the Opposition - or use very creative means to break its unity and thus corner naysayers. Trump will clearly have to do the same thing, but whether Speaker Ryan can do that or not is in question after the AHCA debacle.

But even before the legislative tussles, Prime Minister Modi faced a problem: leaks. In a government that has a permanent bureaucracy that has been leached by the Deep Congress for decades, preventing information from getting out before it was time was going to be very difficult. Indeed, one of Modi's earliest campaign's was to discipline the civil service and end the culture of leaks. And that has largely been successful: in the initial days, all sorts of speculation and information kept leaking out to the media in a case of Sore Loser Syndrome. But by the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, not one journalist knew about Smriti Irani's surprise removal from HRD, which was the biggest headline of that event. Demonetization was another exercise that would've been impossible without a water-tight information system. This is not to say that the media should not have information - it is absolutely essential they should - but there is a difference between information and access. The media has a right to obtain information and pass it on to the public; journalists do not have a right to privileged and exclusive access to information that rightly does not belong in the public sphere (yet).

For President Trump, the task is somewhat more complicated. The US allows for many political appointees who can be removed by a new president, so Trump is not hobbled by a permanent bureaucracy (although there are career bureaucrats in the underbelly of the Beltway). However, the US Government is much larger than the Indian one, and Trump has been extremely slow in replacing political appointees for all sub-Cabinet level positions. His top priority should be replacing all of them - a witch hunt of leak-providers is a sheer waste of time when there is a much more effective solution. On controlling the bureaucracy, President Trump, who has a phone call with Prime Minister Modi on the BJP's victory in UP the other day, can certainly exchange a few notes. 

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