Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to finally expand his cabinet. Commentators expect that only a lucky dozen will make it. The ministry’s size will likely go up to less than 60, and more than 20 officially allowed slots will remain vacant. The big news is that there may be a new defence minister, which will come as a relief. Modi seems to have turned the crucial defence and finance ministries into part-time jobs. That could not have been what people expected when he promised “minimum government, maximum governance”.
While pundits gush over the small size of the cabinet, it is actually a recipe for governance failure. In a small cabinet, some ministers are overburdened. For half a year, this has been the case with crucial infrastructure departments. A young minister of state, Piyush Goyal, oversees power, coal, and new and renewable energy at a time when working out policy frameworks just for the coal sector would overwhelm a more experienced minister. At least Goyal’s portfolios are broadly related. Nitin Gadkari juggles the unrelated and weighty portfolios of shipping, road transport and rural development, while Ravi Shankar Prasad oscillates between law and communications and information technology.
How a prime minister allocates responsibilities to his cabinet colleagues, and in turn to junior ministers, tells us something about his ability to delegate. But if a quarter of cabinet slots are not even filled, that tells us something else — that perhaps there is some truth in the rumours that all decision-making is centralised within the prime minister’s office (PMO) and that ministers do not really matter.
Not expanding the cabinet fully also signals that the prime minister does not think it important to groom youngsters for the future. This is bound to demoralise MPs. It is also a slap in the face to states like Rajasthan, which elected 25 BJP MPs, but found only one (and he faces rape charges) made a minister. We would be justified in asking: Is there a talent shortage in the BJP parliamentary party? Are there not enough BJP MPs with some minimal capability and credibility that they can be inducted into the ministry?
Cabinet positions are not the only ones that remain vacant. A number of crucial appointments have not been made. These include the lokpal, the chief vigilance commissioner and the chief information commissioner. The lack of attention to filling these slots on time is indicative of Modi’s attitude towards tackling corruption, and about how little he cares for the right to information law. A part of the problem arises from the fact that some of these appointments have to be cleared by a committee, including the leader of the opposition — which the government has fought tooth-and-nail to deny to the Congress. Another glaring case is that of the National Disaster Management Authority. It currently has neither a chairman nor members, at a time when the country continually faces nature’s wrath.
Modi’s belief may be that he can run the government more efficiently through bureaucrats. He has already enhanced the power of secretaries by meeting with them directly and asking them to come up with policy ideas to share with him. But as Modi has empowered sarkari bureaucrats, he has simultaneously disempowered his ministers. This is a bad development in our cabinet system of government. Ministers now worry about whether their writ runs in their own bhavans. They are crippled by the fear that the officers who are supposed to report to them are working out separate arrangements with the PMO. Add these concerns to reports that ministers feel compelled to seek the PM or PMO’s stamp of approval for every move and measure. This has ushered in a new kind of governance paralysis, as Modi is often away on foreign- or election-related tours, and even his extra-large PMO is unable to attend to every issue in a timely manner.
Other moves strike at the essence of our administrative apparatus. One of the PM’s early diktats was to ban any officer who had served in key positions under the UPA from being given similar posts under the new NDA regime. Such a move blatantly and illogically politicises the bureaucracy. It needlessly taints those who served under the UPA when they were just doing their jobs. Turning bureaucrats into “their” men and “our” men introduces partisan politics that will soon corrode our governmental structure.
Running a complex country that is going through several simultaneous transformations like India, requires teamwork and a commitment to action rather than rhetoric. What we have seen so far of the Modi sarkar is turning out to be the opposite. Witness the casual announcement of the dismantling of the Planning Commission without a well-thought-out alternative to take its place. This work style can only lead to one outcome — minimum governance — which India can ill afford.
The writer is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP