Is there something about our politics that makes great ministers hard to find?
A career in politics is no preparation for government.” This classic line from the bible of parliamentary government, Yes Minister, reveals a truth that has become even more urgent in modern politics. Recently, the spotlight has been turned on two ministers — Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, whose utterances on matters of free speech seldom inspire confidence in his judgement, and A.K. Antony, a politician of personal decency who has been judged by many to be a spectacular failure as defence minister. In any government, the character of governance, and a signal of its effectiveness, is set right at the top. The abdication of the prime minister has grievously distorted the architecture of governance. But it is hard to imagine an effective government without successful cabinet ministers. This government has been spectacularly short of effective cabinet ministers, making it look very rickety indeed. But the question is: Is our political system likely to throw up enough effective ministers?
This question is not an unimportant one. The damage individual ministers can do is truly spectacular. Think of the decimation of the finance ministry under Pranab Mukherjee. It will take years to undo the damage. The defence ministry seems to have lost control of every issue; external affairs has been confined to secondary diplomatic tasks with the balance of power shifting. Human resource development has been awaiting a great minister for a long time. About the home ministry, we often feel “there but for the grace of god go we”. But many other ministries of great importance, like water resources and health, have languished in the absence of ministerial leadership. The question is: Is there something systematic about this mismatch between political talent and effective ministries? Has this mismatch increased with modern government?
To clarify, the issue is not one of antecedently defined personal qualities of ministers. Some of the more spectacular failures have been those who, on paper, looked the most educated. Their problem was that they knew enough to come to believe that they knew everything, and so became presumptuous. Some were decent but ineffective; some were corrupt but highly effective in the short run. Some were politically savvy but terrible as ministers. The issue is whether there is something about our politics that will make great ministers hard continued…