Notebook

August 11, 2014 5:22 pm

A shock to Delhi’s durbar culture

Modi is discouraging his ministers from excessive socialising in the capital, writes Amy Kazmin

India’s capital, New Delhi, has long been known for its “durbar” culture, a word dating back to the Mughal court, and the grand meetings its rulers held to receive visitors, hear petitions and discuss affairs of state.

In recent years the Delhi durbar has evoked images of government ministers and bureaucrats holding court as entrepreneurs, executives and various aspirers lodged appeals for help. The durbar was lubricated by lavish parties hosted by loquacious power brokers and frequented by cabinet ministers and other bigwigs from the erstwhile Congress administration, as well as the city’s elite. Amid kebabs and whisky, guests networked and traded gossip on who was in or out.

But India’s capital, and its tenor, has changed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a teetotal vegetarian, and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party swept into town in May, carrying the aspirations of millions frustrated by rising prices and a lack of economic opportunity.

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Mr Modi has discouraged his cabinet ministers, and other influential BJP members, from excessive socialising in the capital, lest they be seen as too cosy with special interests.

He has also made clear he will not tolerate media leaks – routine in the Congress era – about policy making or internal debates. This gives ministers one more reason to shun social gatherings at which prominent journalists were traditionally among the guests.

The reluctance of Mr Modi’s team to fraternise openly with the capitalist class does not mean the government is fundamentally unsympathetic to business concerns. But ministers have been told they should receive entrepreneurs and corporate executives in their offices rather than the lobbies or dining rooms of five-star hotels.

Business people, too, are feeling the change. They’ve received the message that they shouldn’t bother to come to Delhi to petition personally or argue their cases with officials; they should merely email their problems – and that they can rest assured of a timely response.

Making government more responsive to all – rather than simply to those with the right connections or who can find a sympathetic official to utter those magic words: “I’ll get your work done” – will mean a dramatic change in the working style of Indian officialdom.

While there are many exceptions to the rule, Indian bureaucrats are notorious for their phlegmatic work culture, which hitherto typically included long lunches, golfing outings at the city’s elite clubs, and attendance at various early evening cultural events.

But Mr Modi and his team expect them to raise their game. Ministers have carried out spot inspections at 9am to see whether staff are turning up on time, and there is talk of biometric scanners and disciplinary action for habitual latecomers. Working long hours is now said to be the norm.

It’s not just low-level clerks under scrutiny; senior officials, on whom the premier must rely to carry out his agenda, are expected to work late into the evening and at weekends.

Meanwhile, the prime minister himself appears to be undergoing a change, at least in terms of his public relations. As a prime ministerial candidate he was, in the words of one banker, “hyper-communicative”. Whether through his hologram-enabled mass rallies, his television and radio adverts or his massive billboards, Mr Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, seemed to be omnipresent in a slightly Orwellian manner.

Since taking office, he has largely receded from public view. While his office issues copious press releases and anodyne photos of his meetings with dignitaries, Mr Modi seems to have had little to say to those who elected him, whether on the challenges facing the economy or on recent incidents of communal violence. Some suggest his silence is that of a man well known for his tendency to centralise power, and who is now busily absorbing details about every single one of his government’s ministries so that he can keep a tight watch on ministers and influence crucial decisions. Perhaps.

But Mr Modi would do well to remember a previous occupant of the official residence at Delhi’s Race Course Road: Manmohan Singh, who came to be seen as “the silent prime minister”. It was Mr Singh’s detachment, and apparent refusal to address the common man, that paved the way for a gifted communicator from Gujarat to take India by storm.

amy.kazmin@ft.com

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