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Sleepless in New Delhi: Modi team wakes up to six-to-midnight torment

New Delhi, June 13: Ram Vilas Paswan looks bleary-eyed and edgy all the time. This week, when journalists called on the Union minister he appeared distracted, eyes half-closed.

Paswan, leader of BJP ally Lok Janshakti Party, blamed Delhi’s sizzler of a summer for his plight but the real reason could be something else, according to his cabinet colleagues.

They should know, for they are in the same boat. All of them are reeling under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “punishing regimen” and his expectation that every minister — including the junior ministers — would keep pace with him.

Not many are being able to, inside accounts suggest. Among the few exceptions is Nitin Gadkari, the shipping and surface transport minister tasked additionally with handling rural development since Gopinath Munde’s death.

So is M. Venkaiah Naidu, the parliamentary affairs and urban development minister.

Smriti Irani, the human resource development minister and Nirmala Sitharaman, her hands full with commerce and industry (independent charge) and finance and corporate affairs (as Arun Jaitley’s deputy), have fitted “quite effortlessly” into the “no-sleep” routine. Perhaps because they were used to working overtime in the BJP too.

Modi begins his day at 6am, is on the phone from seven to eight, and gets ready for work by nine. His day ends at midnight. The unspoken diktat is that his officials and ministers follow a similar routine.

Gadkari is believed to stay awake past the witching hour but his mornings are supposed to be “leisurely”.

However, he is tweaking his body clock to fall in sync with Modi’s and is up early these days.

“He is one person who has fitted into Modi’s system,” a BJP source said.

Gadkari’s “night owl” habits were a subject of much carping in the BJP when he helmed the party. BJP officials were used to a “proper” nine-to-five day and seldom attended late evening meetings except in emergencies. Gadkari changed all that.

He called meetings almost always after 9pm, and these went on past midnight. Insiders grumbled that they “stopped listening to him or even thinking” and out of “sheer weariness”, let him have his way.

Like Modi, Naidu is believed to rise early and go to bed late. On Thursday, he arrived at his Nirman Bhavan office at 9am and found that only a handful among his staff were around. He peeked into the canteen and found it untidy.

Naidu is believed to have told his officials that this sort of “tardiness” would not be countenanced.

Similarly, Maneka Gandhi has directed her staff to show up by 8.30am and get ready for meetings beginning 10.30am.

A middle-level minister, hand-picked by Modi for his purported “understanding of contemporary issues and hands-on approach” and assigned an important ministry, warily asked a senior minister if he would be allowed a vacation. The answer was a categorical “No”.

Another middle-rung minister, who was seldom ready for work before 2pm according to BJP lore, was heard wondering if his reset internal clock could affect his health.

Health issues seem to be bothering a few other ministers too. Some of them are under medical advice not to skip their morning walks or gym workouts. However, the late nights have created a bit of an issue about how and when they can possibly squeeze in a bout of physical activity.

Those who worked with Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister recalled that he too began his day early and ended it late, if necessary. Vajpayee and his deputy L.K. Advani — a stickler for health and discipline — were available on phone from 7am.

The difference? “If one of us took it easy the odd day, it would not be held against us (in Vajpayee’s time),” a BJP insider said.

“Now we are living in an era when trains will start running bang on time and one would be able to set clocks at government offices by the officials’ arrivals and departures,” he added ruefully.