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 to find.
The mismatch between politics and government is an old issue. What it takes to be a good parliamentarian may not be the skill that wins you the loyalty of constituents. And now, there are few incentives for good parliamentary performance. An Indian cabinet is of course a political compromise. The logic of that compromise overrides the matching of talent to the job. But is this mismatch likely to grow?
There are reasons to think it might. Being an effective minister now probably requires a greater range of skills to be present all in one package. First, there is the brute fact that now, most ministers cannot confidently rely on their civil servants. Some lucky ministers may get good ones, who, once given clear orders, can execute a mandate. But the variance in the quality of the civil service may have increased considerably. And ministers may have to pay attention to detail in more circumstances. If bureaucratic resistance was the proverbial risk in old Indian versions of Yes Minister, bureaucratic incompetence is an equal, if not greater, risk now. The possibility of being an effective minister without command over detail is diminishing. But very rarely is a politician by temperament disposed to be a details person.
The second thing changing qualitatively is the importance of strategic communication. The saturation of media and information means that effective communication, or at least, defusing false constructions, has become more central to the job. The third thing is that in most ministries, the range of information available, design choices to be made, and evidence and counter arguments put forward by civil society, have expanded considerably. Even if a lot of evidence actually under-determines what should be done, it takes a peculiar kind of intellectual confidence to be able to handle competing arguments. Often, these are ignored all together and ministers can brazenly carry on according to their preconceptions. But for a sincere minister, this challenge of meeting the demands of intellectual judgement is immense.
The fourth thing that is changing is that we are in a new era of governance. A lot of political instincts are, very rightly, governed by the logic of making compromises and cutting deals. In a political environment, a minister has to have this skill. In the old days, this was enough. But this skill now runs up against the demands of public reason. It is just harder to justify compromises or splitting the difference. Indeed, anything that has the appearance of a deal, even if it is reasonable, rather than the imprimatur of a rule, is harder to sustain. Many reasonable decisions are tripped on the wire of technicalities that other branches of government enforce. One reason we have seen so much ministerial failure or abdication may be this — the world of deals is colliding more openly with the world of rules, and politicians are still learning how to square that circle. The ministry of defence certainly is.
These issues are important because this is one area to which a new government will have to pay serious attention. Matters are further complicated by the fact that loyalty and circles of trust often narrow the choices a government has. Politically influential leaders have to be accommodated. But in this government, too many of those accommodated had no virtue but loyalty. Is a different prime minister, such as Narendra Modi, likely to be able to trust competent people? Oddly enough, most of our chief ministers don’t. The one mechanism by which earlier prime ministers kept a check on ministers was the civil service. This was not in the sense that civil servants were beholden to the prime minister. It was in the sense that the mere existence of the civil service was a check on ministers. But in many cases, this PM allowed ministers to cherry pick civil servants. This created more personal loyalties between particular ministers and civil servants, facilitating their collusion.
So as we think about the next government, it is worth asking what a new cabinet might look like. Will it have the right mix of competencies to make for an effective government? Because the other lesson of modern governance is this: each minister is important. After all, for want of a shoe a kingdom can be lost.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’