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Hinges missing

India needs a better transition system as the new government takes shape

May 29, 2009 11:46:38 pm

The pixellated picture of the new UPA government finally clarifies,after days of scrabbling for key ministerial positions. Meanwhile,India has been rocked by large-scale religious violence and natural disaster,and tensions across the border in Pakistan — matters which require focused,unflagging attention. Clearly,our current system of cabinet switchover is far from ideal — assembling a coalition government is a drawn-out process,and,on the other hand,this long limbo requires that the country remain in safe,responsible hands.

As our recent experience indicates,India needs a better model to segue between governments. We need more than bureaucratic placeholders,we need political agents empowered to make bold,creative decisions in this interim. Would a shadow cabinet make sense,where specific individuals are pre-selected by parties as the potential ministers of the next government? Such a system primes politicians for their role,so they are ready to jump into their responsibilities even at short notice. This would indicate future roles to political leaders as well as the public. For instance,a beleaguered Ambika Soni was said to be downloading prep material on health in the expectation that she would be handed that ministry — surely a better handover system would give new ministers more time to settle into their responsibilities. Or an incoming prime minister’s transition team,which takes over from the previous government,until they are replaced by the new council of ministers? Different models exist across the world,and may not necessarily suit our context,but India must develop its own night-watchman role.

And now that the UPA has gone back to the drawing board and the government has finally taken solid shape,it must also institute mechanisms to ensure that it learns from previous experience and keeps constant tabs on its own functioning. Checking for bugs and fixing them should be an automatic

reflex. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for,the government will get in,” goes the snide saying,reflecting a general weariness with the gap between promise and implementation. While we see a tremendous outpouring of energy and commitment in the electoral contest,this tends to tail off once the real,messy business of governance begins. Here’s hoping that Sonia Gandhi meant it when she told the new council of ministers that they must “perform or perish”.

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