He is never wrong

Akshay Deshmane reported for The Morning Context on October 20 that the Union environment ministry has reversed two important decisions it made earlier this year: (a) to invite private law firms to help amend the Indian Forest Act 1927 and (b) to oppose the Delhi high court’s directive to translate the new draft EIA notification to 22 languages and extend its public consultation deadline to December this year. These are both major U-turns in the sense that the original decisions were both obviously anti-democratic and had the government’s unwavering support, so to walk back on them is to admit that the government’s original stance on both counts was wrong.

Now, I’m of the firm belief that India is currently ruled not by a government but by an autocrat at the very top who likes to be seen pulling the ministerial strings when things go right but pushes some sod forward when things go sideways. I concede that this has pretty much been an ex post facto rationalisation, but it fits the facts every time and also draws some support from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his fingers not in some pies but in every pie. This would entail a certain failure rate – as would be statistically typical, as is normal – but if the government’s press releases and communiqués and ministers’ speeches are to be believed, he has never screwed up. Never. The incumbent government is also incapable of making any decision without his express approval, if not being entirely of his office’s initiative.

In this context, it’s notable that between making the two decisions and admitting that they were wrong, in July 2021, Prime Minister Modi reshuffled the Union cabinet, replacing a glut of ministers – and apparently also giving himself room to rethink some decisions without requiring a mea culpa or, at least and as has become so common, retaining plausible deniability. Among the new lot was Bhupender Yadav, brought in to replace Prakash Javadekar as the environment minister. And it was Yadav’s office that announced it wouldn’t challenge the Delhi high court and that it wouldn’t continue with the process to have private firms amend an important legal instrument.

Would the ministry, and the minister, have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing while they were still in the same office? Unlikely; it has seldom happened before. Would the prime minister have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing? Ha!

A similar thing happened with the outgoing health minister Harsh Vardhan and the incoming Mansukh Mandaviya, who said shortly after his new appointment that the health ministry didn’t do enough against India’s second COVID-19 outbreak in April-May this year. There’s no reason to stop believing that the prime minister is still pulling the strings, and there’s no reason to stop believing that he will continue to ‘prove’ he’s always right.

Featured image credit: Al Soot/Unsplash.