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Buck stops with an EGOM

The way the government uses empowered groups of ministers is unsettling...

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
June 18, 2010 3:35:59 am

There is a harsh,if not entirely off the mark,joke going around. A teacher asks,who is the prime minister of India? A student replies with some excitement,“Ma’am,EGOM.” The joke is harsh in so far as it entirely rubbishes the authority of the PM. Recently,the Naga students blockading Manipur had the courtesy to acknowledge the PM’s credibility when he chose to directly intercede. But this episode cannot disguise the fact that the conduct of government leaves it unclear exactly who is in charge,and where the buck stops. The EGOM (empowered group of ministers) is a useful mechanism for policy coordination and consensus building. Instead it seems to now exemplify the pathologies of governance; it has become a knee-jerk response to crises and often appears more like an elaborate mechanism to evade responsibility than to produce results.

The way in which the government uses the EGOM is unsettling. There is something seriously amiss in the way in which the Congress is handling the relationship between political and government decisions. The division of labour between the Congress president and the prime minister was always something of a convenient myth. But recent decisions have shown that you cannot govern if the party hierarchy and government work at cross-purposes,with no clear sense of direction or strategy. Most crises have their origins in this chaos. The crisis in Manipur was a dual failure of party and state. Just a little coordination between the Congress in Delhi and the Congress in Manipur could have pre-empted the crisis,and to exacerbate matters,the government literally paralysed itself on the issue. Again,the party’s mishandling of its own constituents in Andhra Pradesh exacerbated the Telangana crisis. The government’s confused announcements left it unclear whether it was doing the party’s bidding or thinking like government.

Then there is a curious phenomenon. The normally reticent and restrained Sonia Gandhi decided to intervene on two issues whose logic from the point of view of governance is half-baked: the women’s reservation bill and the caste census. Both these issues,in different ways,increased governance challenges. But while no one doubts that she is the ultimate power,it only adds to confusion when no one is clear why she chooses to assert herself on some issues and not on others. The failure of anyone in this supposedly pro-poor government to try and convince us that they take inflation seriously,is just one example where we are left wondering why our leaders get agitated about some issues and not others. The same confusion applies to the prime minister. Hence the sense of disarray.

In this context,the EGOM has become a peculiar institution. It is a backhanded acknowledgment of several things. First,that government gets into action only in a crisis which has in part been created by its own ministers. Why would you need EGOMs if the normal functions of ministries and cabinet were being carried out? EGOMs are undermining confidence that normal processes of government can work.

Second,the EGOMs signal a vacuum. Both the prime minister and Congress president seem to be unmindful of one important function of government. In times of crisis,or national anger or shame,leaders perform two functions. They provide a reassurance that someone is clearly in charge and takes responsibility,that someone has the capacity to reconcile differences and be decisive. The second — and this is particularly the function of a prime minister — they have the ability to send a signal that they truly care and are listening. Instead,what we seem to get is a parcelling of responsibility off to this collective group. Leaders give genuine reassurance,restore confidence and give consolation. Does anyone imagine that an EGOM on Bhopal might perform that function?

Third,the EGOMs may directly be contributing to skewed governmental priorities. Being a finance minister or a home minister of a country like India is,even under the best of circumstances,a difficult job. But you can’t help but think that if two or three key figures in the cabinet are acting as a sort of firefighting mechanism on every issue,they are probably ignoring simmering fires in their own domain. The home ministry was outright caught napping on as vital an internal security issue as Manipur,and it can’t be because the home minister doesn’t work hard.

Fourth,let us also look at EGOMs in the context of Congress culture. On some issues,there is bound to be genuine disagreement within any political party,and some of these disagreements are intellectually productive. But often in the Congress you get the feeling that Congressmen are criticising their colleagues simply in order to pull them down. The timing of these criticisms often casts doubts on their sincerity. And one plausible explanation is that Congressmen are often more intent on ensuring that their other colleagues do not acquire an unchallenged credibility or authority. This is even more likely to be exacerbated in a context where almost no political leader has the confidence of a political base outside their own constituency. In this context,constantly referring to EGOMs is a signal that routine political coordination within the cabinet and party has broken down. An EGOM is more like a huddle in a crisis to broker deals than it is an instrument to promote public reason.

You can add to this mix the curious phenomenon of Rahul Gandhi. His attention to the party and building a democratic youth cadre is important. But those experiments will generate more skepticism if they do not have any tangible results for transparency in the relationship between party and government. If the Congress cannot solve its internal coordination problems,what confidence will it inspire that it can negotiate the thicket of new social conflicts about to arise? It is very hard to make the case that there has been a visible improvement in the functioning of the Congress party on any issue,whether it is the distribution of Rajya Sabha tickets,or its ability to come clean on its own past.

The Congress will need to ask sooner or later: how long can this supposed division of political responsibility and responsibility for government continue? At the moment it is producing a situation where both head of party and head of government emerge only very episodically to perform any leadership function. And if at the very top there is so little decisiveness,you can only imagine what signal this sends to the rest of the system: that individual responsibility can be evaded by lobbing the ball in the court of an EGOM.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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