The cabinet system of governance was eroded in UPA’s tenure. Modi’s challenge will be to restore credibility of its key decision-making bodies.
A clean slate throws up unimaginable possibilities, providing room and scope for several experiments that may, until now, have seemed politically impractical. So, when prime minister-designate Narendra Modi works his way through forming his cabinet, populating his office or making up his mind on key appointments, he is actually in the process of putting in place the instruments that will fill up this space. His hope: a new India story, rewritten, repackaged and more relevant.
Only democracy can produce moments of new beginnings. Yet, it remains anchored to a constitution that inspires institutions, sets limits and balances the distribution of power through a range of principles and safeguards. The two are not contradictory, but can become so if not made to complement and constructively overlap. The PM, as the head of the executive, is crucial to this interplay and, therefore, the last stop for all decisions.
This is where Modi inherits a legacy charged with overstretching the system and outsourcing decision-making processes. Put simply, the cabinet system of governance was sharply eroded due to extra-constitutional powers vested informally through arrangements, such as the Congress core group. The Cabinet Committee on Security, the apex decision-making body headed by the prime minister, was not necessarily the last stop for decisions on sensitive issues. Serious questions can be raised in due course on whether matters made it to the agenda only after political concurrence had been obtained through informal channels.
So, whether it was taking a call on Siachen, taking a far-reaching call on Kashmir, changing the approach in the fight against the Naxals or building new institutions to fight terror, the CCS seemingly dithered and delayed. The inability to reach a consensus on crucial issues on certain occasions led to mediation within the Congress command structure. Restoring the credibility of this apex decision-making body of the cabinet would mean a careful choice of those who head the ministries that constitute the CCS, shaping a view through constructive dissent rather than manoeuvring to kill initiatives because of internal differences.
There is no doubt that Modi’s authority, as is visible, will be final and unquestioned. Yet, it is vital that the decision-making is largely collegiate, because this is the one committee where minutes are not maintained, unless so decided, and where even senior officials are called in only if required. The sanctity of this forum lies at the heart of the cabinet system of governance and making it work effectively and properly could be a significant achievement, which is what makes the selection of these ministers not just portfolio-centric.
The other cabinet forum that has lost purpose and utility is the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs which, until the CCS was formed, was the apex decision-making body within the system. The dawn of the coalition era meant that much of its agenda moved outside the cabinet system to forums like the Left-UPA coordination committee, which involved parties that supported the party in power but were not in government.
Manmohan Singh, in UPA 2, had a great opportunity to restore the political utility of this body within the cabinet system, as all the allies were indeed part of the government to begin with in 2009. That, in fact, was the intention, but again, such authority gravitated towards the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress core group. As a result, the CCPA became a bit of a rubber stamp, endorsing decisions like an oil price hike or the tabling of a bill well after the core group had given its consent.
With a majority on its own and all the NDA expected to be represented within the government, Modi has an opportunity to restore the utility and credibility of the CCPA so that all relevant decisions are taken within the cabinet system. The practice of situating decision-making discussions outside cabinet forums was one of the major factors leading to a lack of political accountability, which has severely affected governance structures.
Related to this was the practice of creating an empowered group of ministers on almost every complex issue. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee started the process of GoMs, it was an effort to get relevant ministries to look into any complex issue of governance in depth and then return to the cabinet for a final decision. EGoMs meant a decision could be taken within the group and the cabinet just approved the recommendation. Resorting to this practice on a few issues may be required, but replicating it on almost all crucial issues, largely economic, as happened in the UPA, meant oversight could set in and, more importantly, most of the cabinet had barely any idea of what had gone through. Several technical issues in sectors such as telecom and petroleum went through in this manner.
By all indications, the Modi cabinet will be of smaller size and so it will be possible for all key ministers to be part of major decisions. And if Modi, as PM, is able to restore the credibility of these institutional arrangements within the cabinet system, he would have crossed a significant milestone — one that will be critical to delivering on all that he has promised. It’s also for this reason that the days he now spends picking his team will be important for the years ahead. The queue-up at Gujarat Bhawan indicates that there are many who are desirous. But with this kind of mandate, the decision can only be his — which is both a privilege and a challenge.