These days the Modi government reminds me of the famous exchange between the Cheshire cat and Alice, who is lost in Wonderland. She asks the cat which way to go. That, says the cat, depends on where you want to go. Oh, says Alice, it doesn't really matter. In that case, replies the cat, it doesn't matter which way you go. Narendra Modi's government hasn't quite reached Alice's stage of resignation yet but it is getting there because whereas Candidate Modi seemed to know exactly what he wanted and how to get it, Prime Minister Modi looks quite lost. Even my name for him last year - Slogan Murugan - has worn thin now. Only the slow is left, the guns having fallen silent. No matter what one looks at, there is a sense of purposelessness and lack of direction. What India sees now is a man who so enthused the country in 2014 now looking like the Leacockian hero who "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions". That, at least, is the general perception. The reality, say the government's publicists and websites, is different because quite a lot has been achieved. Perhaps so, but is it enough? In any case, where are the government's image managers? The fact is that both the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party have started looking very ordinary. Even the most ardent admirers of Mr Modi and the most fanatical adherents of the BJP smile a little nervously if you ask them about the government being bogged down. Already the electorate is convinced that the Modi and Singh governments are just "Prem Singh-Nattha Singh, one and same thing". This is because Mr Modi, having won the perception war, is now on the point of losing it. Those who live by the slogan can perish by them, too, when the very same slogans come back to haunt them. Remember "Garibi Hatao" in the 1970s and its many variants thereafter? The BJP riposted with "Beta car banata hai, Ma bekaar banati hai". The beta in question was Sanjay Gandhi and the car, Maruti. At present, therefore, it is pretty much a lost cause. Shun thaiyun, Narendrabhai? Why is this happening? I will venture a guess here. It is in three parts. The first is that Mr Modi is fascinated by the way China runs its economy, by firmans and fatwas.
He may hate the communists but he does seem to admire their methods and structures, including a clear preference for state control. The Chinese economy runs on a central command-and-control basis. I suspect that is how the current Prime Minister's Office has been conceived. It is, if you will, the China model with Indian features. What we have is not mere old-fashioned centralisation as everyone seems to think. It is a top-down execution system - or at least is trying to be - in which ministers carry out instructions from on high. That would be fine, except that we have no way of knowing how precise these instructions are. If they are general in nature, which they seem to be from all accounts, the reason for the slow pace of progress becomes evident. One way out is to reverse the decision-making process and leave it to the ministers. But very few ministers - Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Suresh Prabhu, Manohar Parrikar, Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, to name a few prominent ones - are competent enough to get things moving on their own and, without a Planning Commission - or equivalent - to help out. The second aspect of my guess is that he is fascinated by the American presidential system of managing the political side of governance. The essence of this in a federal system is pork-barrel politics. For every give, there has to be something by way of support for the government. The decision to hand over the proceeds of natural resource auctions have to be seen in this light. But the generosity has to be discretionary. It seems that Mr Modi was not very happy with the 14th Finance Commission's recommendations about handing over 42 per cent of revenues to the states because that would be automatic. The third is that he desperately wants another term as prime minister. He can't be faulted for this but it is making him excessively cautious, like a batsman who decides from the first ball - recall his first speech in Parliament last May - that he is going to score a hundred and then scores only in singles and twos, forgetting that boundary hits, too, matter. Or, to use an analogy that may appeal to him more, he is like Narada who, when asked by God to carry up a cup of milk from earth, was so intent on not spilling it that he forgot all about God. God was not pleased. Nor will the electorate be when the time comes.