Today is the day of reckoning for the ministerial class in Delhi. As the constellation of the Narendra Modi solar system gets a reshuffle, some stars will fall. New stars will rise. Nevertheless, has restructuring the Union Cabinet ever made a tangible difference to governance at the ground level? Or does the Council of Ministers contribute substantially to the electoral fortunes of the ruling party?
In a parliamentary democracy, the Union Cabinet led by the prime minister is collectively held accountable for the good, bad or ugly performance of the government. However, election results have routinely exploded this maxim as a myth.
In the Lok Sabha elections, it is the prime minister who people have been voting in or out, and not Cabinet ministers. Ever since Indira Gandhi seized a status bigger than the institution of the Union Cabinet, ministers are appointed merely to honour a Constitutional compulsion, which mandates that the prime minister cannot take policy decisions without the sanction of the Cabinet, which he has chosen himself. Yet, from 1967 on, there has hardly been a time when no vacancies existed in the Cabinet. Even though the number of Union ministers has swelled from less than 25 during the 1950s to over 75 now, many of them hold multiple responsibilities.
Obviously, the size and quality of the Cabinet has less to do with workload or performance than the political compulsion to accommodate diverse pressure groups, which are the unavoidable tide-makers in a leader’s political voyage. So, at best it seems like an exaggeration, and at worst unreasonable, to expect the induction of new faces and the removal of some old ones in the Cabinet to make much of a difference to the overall quality of delivery or governance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to give a partial new look to his 75 odd-member Council of Ministers could mean rewards to some and punishment to some others.
His success as India’s 14th Prime Minister is hardly dependent on his ministers because he himself is the biggest and most credible brand for the BJP. It is Modi and not the party who won in 2014. Eight hundred million Indians would vote him back in 2019 based on his performance and not that of any of his Cabinet colleagues. Everything is in a name—it’s the fate of prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh that the electorate had decided, more than their party’s. Both Vajpayee and Manmohan had some outstanding ministers who had excelled in achieving their missions. But it was the people who sealed their fates.
Yet, all prime ministers since Independence has done the periodic ritual of reshuffling their pack of ministerial colleagues. Barring Jawaharlal Nehru, every other PM who completed a full term changed the size and colour of his Cabinet, over half-a-dozen times. Vajpayee made the changes more than a dozen times during his tenure of less than six years. Manmohan Singh, who won two consecutive terms, either reshuffled or expanded his Council of Ministers 15 times in his first term (2004-2009) and 11 times in the second term (2009-2014). P V Narasimha Rao reshuffled his Cabinet 17 times. And all three eventually lost the elections.
The reasons for the reshuffles were predictable: more representation to left-out regions, caste correction and inducting youth. Once the deed was done, the Cabinet ironically remained unrepresented by some region or community—or both. The puzzle is that numerous personalities who were dropped from the government, staged a comeback a few months or a year later. And a large number of ministers were still left holding multiple portfolios. For example, Manmohan moved P Chidambaram from Finance to Home, only to bring him back soon after Pranab Mukherjee became the President of India.
Modi, who had inducted Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister by relieving Arun Jaitley, sent him back home after the state polls, giving the ministry back to the Finance Minister. Many ministers hold multiple portfolios. However, a unique feature of Modi’s government is that he has allocated important ministries such as Coal, Petroleum, Power, Environment, Tourism, Communications and Commerce Minister to Ministers of State with Independent Charge. Over half a dozen ministers have been holding additional charges for almost over a year. Rarely have ministers been dropped or inducted on the basis of their perceived performance alone.
Over the years, a Cabinet post has become a status symbol rather than a barometer of the minister’s political and administrative acumen. Each mantri is expected to implement the decisions taken by the Cabinet effectively and follow the prime minister’s vision and mission. But most fail due to the complexities of the system, which links the performance of one ministry with that of many other ministries. For example, Nitin Gadkari was prevented from achieving his target by roadblocks placed in his path by the Environment Ministry, state governments and some NGOs.
To make the India story a success, the entire Cabinet does not need a change of face at frequent intervals. India needs a minimum Cabinet with maximum responsibility and accountability. Rajiv Gandhi had restructured many ministries by simply merging them with others with similar responsibilities. Modi, too, has adopted the instrument of mergers. Once there was a prime ministerial opinion that India needs only 12 cabinet ministers; each holding the portfolios of Treasury and Trade, Internal and External Security, National Transport, National Health and Fitness, Agricultural Development, Human Resource Development, Water Resources and River Rejuvenation, Judicial and Administrative Reforms, Global Relations, Research and Development.
They would be assisted by ministers without a portfolio at the Centre, but allocated respective states to ensure efficient implementation of Central government schemes and the proper flow of Central funds. For example, the Prime Minister could appoint a Union minister for each state. They would be mandated to serve as the link between the Union Cabinet and the state government. Similarly, a minister can oversee a cluster of smaller states.
Such an arrangement is in place in some states, where state ministers are also in charge of a specified number of districts. Allocating ministers to states other than their own, will force them to visit each and every district and report their findings to the Cabinet. At the moment, there is total disconnect between the states and the Centre. A single Union minister visiting all the states for ceremonial purposes, such as laying foundation stones and addressing elite gatherings, is counterproductive to development.
The lack of total success of the Prime Minister’s innovative programmes such as Swachh Bharat, Digital India, homes for the poor, cleaning of rivers and construction of toilets for the rural and urban areas is because of the failure of the monitoring system at the senior level. Since a bulky and bloated Union Cabinet has been accepted as a necessary evil, isn’t it better to convert its extra political calories into an instrument of delivery, rather than it remaining a symbol of arrogant power for display? Only Modi can change the paradigm.
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