The first circular issued by the Department of Personnel and Training under the charge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned ministers on sticking to rules in hiring personal staff. Do not recruit relatives, it said, and advised ministers to restrict themselves to the general pool available. The department’s website has also uploaded existing rules for such recruitment, which include the guideline that no person can serve on a minister’s personal staff for more than 10 years.
In a related flurry of advice to his council of ministers, Modi has exhorted them to use social media to reach out, to set a 100-day agenda, give ministers of state adequate work, focus on implementation, and coordinate with state governments. This is a good beginning. But the proof of its efficacy shall lie in the degree to which arbitrariness is avoided in honouring guidelines, norms and conventions. This is essential for cleaning up government, for making it more engaging and accountable, and importantly, for giving ministers elbow room to be more transparent and confident in the use of discretionary powers to get work done.
The new government need only look back to the conditions that created the UPA government’s so-called policy paralysis, a hold-all term for the various factors that were perceived to have frozen it in the face of governance challenges. Inappropriate staffing was one — as detailed in this newspaper a year ago, as many as 87 persons were on the personal staff of ministers in breach of the 10-year limit. Arbitrary standards of public engagement and transparency — in articulating policy or explaining action — did little to foster trust that the government was seized of its mandate.
The presence of another centre for policymaking, the NAC in the Congress’s case, did not just take the initiative out of assorted ministries, it also created an impression of evasiveness and powerlessness. Equally, the perception of each minister being left to her own devices — whether emboldened to do as she pleased, on account of coalition compulsions, or hobbled by not getting adequate support from the council of ministers — took a toll.
Can the new government signal a new beginning? For now, there is reason for cautious optimism. But it will take more than atmospherics.