Any government should be allowed a few months to settle in. It wouldn't be wise to jump to conclusions on the basis of Narendra Modi's first weeks on the job; regardless of how long or how eagerly he's been waiting to move into 7, Race Course Road, the sheer bandwidth required if you want to control, and not delegate, must still have come as a surprise.
Still, you've got to keep your eyes and ears open. True, it isn't easy, especially given the lack of any real stories means you instead endure endless cringe-worthy stories about how hard the prime minister is working - patently unsourced, mostly, and indistinguishable from similar puff-pieces written about other media darlings such as, for example, the last finance minister. But, suppose one wants to look beyond that - to be that one intrepid coal miner out in front, carrying the canary in the cage. (Though many of us feel more like the canary.) Is that canary still alive? Are there any early warning signals out there?
Some worry about the wholesale replacement of governors and commission members, and the politicisation of such posts - but the truth is that the horse bolted long ago. It is too much to hope that men like H R Bhardwaj, for example, not be seen for what they are - Congress time-servers in sensitive jobs. Let's wait to see who Modi comes up with as replacements before condemning him for this.
I'm less sanguine about the news, reported in the Indian Express on Friday, that no bureaucrats in important positions in the last government can be appointed to major posts, even in another ministry, in this one. And odd sort of collective punishment - indeed, the single biggest step towards politicising the civil service since the Indira era. A civil servant who knows he will not achieve a major position if the Opposition comes to power is forced into partisanship. Perhaps that's what's intended, actually. In any case, unmitigated bad news.
Then there's the government's reported rejection of the nomination of the former solicitor-general, Gopal Subramaniam, to the Supreme Court. There are too few Supreme Court judges with recent experience as top-flight advocates; whatever the other merits of his appointment, Subramaniam would have remedied that. Sadly for him, he also had a bit of experience appearing as amicus curiae in the Gujarat fake encounter cases. Naturally, the Modi government has refused to sign on to his name. A pity.
After this news appeared in The Hindu on Thursday, there was silence from the government - but various newspapers the next day published "details" from a Central Bureau of Investigation report. The purpose of the leaks: to imply Subramaniam was rejected because of a supposed closeness to lobbyist Niira Radia. Really?
But the thing about this sordid episode I want to flag is this: nobody is discussing it on the record. It is an open secret in Delhi that the government has stopped talking to the media. Sure, the last administration was destroyed by inept media management above all. But it's particularly strange to imagine that less transparency is the same thing as good governance.
OK, I hear you ask, but are these questions of personnel really that relevant, or important? Even if not, a couple of other scents should worry us canaries. Signs that the government's first priority is a particular social agenda, at whatever cost to cohesion and efficiency - the exact opposite of the claims it made when seeking election.
Surely a new government should seek, for example, to avoid relighting - for petty ideological reasons - a long-buried dispute that threatened to split this country? But no. Within a few weeks, the emphasis on the official promotion and propagation of Hindi has become unmistakable. A mark of how important this is: it comes well before any announcement of economic reform.
This is insane. A generation in the South has just about begun to accept the idea that Hindi is not necessarily the language of an oppressor and now comes news that the Centre will insist on talking to most states in Hindi, and that it will primarily use Hindi on social media. A clumsy clarification issued on Friday that the policy did not intend to impose Hindi will have convinced nobody.
What could be the pay-off for these decisions except some vague Hindutvavadi commitment to destroying the imperialist language of English? Could Modi's government have so misread his mandate? Or have the rest of us misread it? Have we forgotten the costs, human and economic, of a lack of social cohesion in the 10 years of relative harmony that the UPA gave us?
This is not to say that the prime minister himself is necessarily to blame. He can't control everything, however much he may like to pretend otherwise. He himself has every right to speak in Hindi. There has been some mean-spirited and elitist commentary following his decision to use Hindi when speaking to foreign leaders. But it is both unfair and mistaken to portray Narendra Modi as unlettered or untutored. In fact, he is very well read in certain fields - in those books and writings which would be part of an intelligent life-long swayamsevak's library.
It is this that he was reflecting when, in his maiden speech to Parliament, he spoke of "1,200 years of slavery" that is "troubling us", and sapping our strength and confidence. The RSS' Organiser, overjoyed, correctly flagged this, the only really new and important part of the speech. Under the old dispensation, it was 200 years; Modi Sarkar has already stretched victimhood back a millennium. (And we know who we were slaves to in that millennium, eh, nudge nudge wink wink say no more.) A true achievement - and one, at least, for which the prime minister himself is clearly responsible. That canary may have survived everything else in the first weeks of this government. But the "1,200 years" reference will have killed the poor bird. Because it makes one thing very clear: the social agenda is not off the table in spite of the deluded wishful thinking of so many.