As mentioned in the article published last week, I had met Narendra Modi for the first time in 2002 when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. The second meeting with Narendra Modi happened after more than 12 years. I met a different man altogether. I was posted as Officer on Special Duty in the rank of Secretary, Government of India, in the Ministry of Coal, even before my predecessor had superannuated. There was a crisis in the coal sector, and I was tasked to handle that crisis. The order had come on October 16 2014, and I had joined immediately. The PM held a review on October 18 at his residence, 7, Race Course Road. Here, I saw a receptive, decisive, and confident Narendra Modi. Just before the presentation, I was introduced to the Prime Minister. A brief presentation was made before him by Secretary Power.
In the seven slides shown, there was a hint that almost all the power sector problems were due to the coal crisis. After patiently listening to the presentation, the PM turned towards me and said, “Anilji, you set the coal sector in order; the country’s economy will boom.” I was a greenhorn here, but I had some idea about both the power and the coal sectors, having handled some of the projects as the head of the Project Monitoring Group (PMG), where my job was to fast-track large scale projects, some of which were related to power and coal. I responded to the comment of the PM by first assuring him that I would try and do my best and then went on to add that though there were serious issues that beset the coal sector, all the problems of the power sector could not be attributed to coal. The power sector would require a more comprehensive look. Though I had apparently gone beyond my brief, and that too in the first interaction, the PM immediately caught my point and nodded in agreement. He then turned toward Piyush Goyal, who headed both the Power and Coal Ministries and asked him to take a comprehensive look as I had suggested. Here was a Prime Minister prepared to listen to a difference of opinion and respond positively.
There was no dearth of ideas in the new government, and Modi was the driving force. Most of these ideas were imaginative and purposeful. One amongst them was to ask all Secretary level officers to visit the place of their first posting to assess what had happened during the past three decades or so and see what else could be done there. It was also to get in touch with the ground reality as most of those posted in Delhi had lost touch with the base for many years. Only a practitioner-visionary like Modi could have thought about it. I had been travelling throughout the country in my capacity as Director-General, Labour Welfare, while implementing the health insurance scheme, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). Yet, I learned a lot when I visited the Sub-division where I was first posted (Kushinagar, which had by then been converted into a district). Much development had taken place in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh that was quite backward when I was there in the early 1980s. Yet, there were huge problems. I had gone there now as Coal Secretary, but this experience held me in good stead as I later took over as Secretary, School Education, and I had the occasion to revisit the place. All these helped.
It was heartening to see the Prime Minister in full action. During his stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had perhaps understood the role that civil servants could play. He was trying to replicate that model in the centre. One of the many initiatives he took in this regard related to the quarterly exchange of ideas with the top Civil Servants over a cup of tea. All the Secretaries (more than 100 of them) to the Government of India were invited over to his residence every three months. My first tea, along with the other Secretaries, was on April 1, 2014. It was organized on the lawns of his residence.
To begin with, we sat around in semi-circular rows with the PM and just a couple of senior Cabinet Ministers in front. It was an informal setup. The Cabinet Secretary made the opening remarks, and then the Secretaries were asked to speak on any subject. Many Secretaries spoke, and spoke freely on many subjects. It was indeed a great way of getting feedback on various subjects. After remarks by several attendees, the Prime Minister responded to the suggestions and ideas. It was incredible. Perhaps a Prime Minister of the country was opening up in an informal setting for the first time. And then something happened. The PM took my first name and complimented me for the coal block auctions that had taken place. I had not expected this, but an accomplished leader was crediting me in front of my colleagues. Yes, the coal block auctions had gone on smoothly, and the government was getting all the credit for it but for the PM himself to say so on an occasion as this came as a surprise.
After the address by the PM, we were treated to a sumptuous tea, and even on this occasion, the PM went around and interacted with smaller groups. He was quite literally on the move and endeared himself to all.
Narendra Modi did something that had never been done before. He got the Secretaries to discuss various issues in informal settings. He had correctly diagnosed that the Ministries existed in silos, which needed to be broken. It worked. Secretaries got together and found solutions to many vexed issues that confronted the government. All the Secretaries to the Government were constituted into around ten Groups and were assigned subjects to work upon. This entailed several informal and formal meetings amongst the Secretaries, who perhaps never got together to discuss issues apart from those relating to their respective Departments. Modi was keen on breaking these silos.
He was keen on getting these senior officers together to discuss some significant issues that beset the country in an informal setting. He succeeded substantially. These informal Groups of Secretaries made presentations before the PM in the presence of all Cabinet colleagues. There was positive energy all around. The presentations were followed by elaborate discussions wherein even the Cabinet Ministers asked questions, as did other Secretaries from different groups. An action plan was drawn up consequent to these discussions. Many suggestions even got incorporated in the Annual Budget. There was a purpose behind this exercise, and the purpose seemed to have been served.