Politics of Cabinet Expansion
The much-expected expansion of the council of ministers headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken place. The ministry formation or expansion is always a delicate task. To the best of my memory as a political analyst, there has not been a single union cabinet or council of ministers whose selection has not drawn some flak or the other. Narendra Modi’s cabinet is not an exception to this phenomenon. No wonder why one has come across many explanations of the Prime Minister’s latest exercise, some adulatory and some critical.
There are many ways of looking at the latest exercise. One is to see in terms of who gained and who lost, not to speak of those hapless ministers who were asked to quit. Obviously, the biggest gainer is Prakash Javedkar, who has not only been promoted to the cabinet rank but has also been assigned one of the major ministries, the Ministry of Human Resources and Development. Obviously, the loser happens to be the previous incumbent Smriti Irani, who has been shifted to the Ministry of Textiles. Of course, one could argue that Irani’s new assignment is not that bad at all, given the facts that her Textiles Ministry has been given a special package of Rs.6000 crore, that the ministry’s revenue size will reach 100 billion dollars by 2016-17, that 45 million people are employed directly in textile industry, making it the largest employer after agriculture, that 2 billion US dollars have already come as the FDI and that the industry earns 14 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange from the US and European Union.
But for me, the major loser is Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who had to give up his role as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Erstwhile Telecommunications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad may also not have been exactly happy for being shifted to Ministry of Law and Justice, whose incumbent Sadananda Gowda has been transferred to Ministry of Statistics and Programme implementation. Gowda too seems to be a loser.
Those ministers of state who were holding independent charges but now have to report to their respective cabinet ministers in new departments will also consider themselves losers. They include Santosh Gangwar (earlier handling the Textiles Ministry but now in the Ministry of Finance) and General VK Singh (he remains
minister of state in the Ministry of External Affairs, but has lost the independent portfolio of Programme Implementation). The biggest gainer among the ministers of state happens to be junior Railways Minister Manoj Sinha who has got the additional but independent charge of the high profile Ministry of Telecommunications.
In a sense, the latest expansion has been the expansion of only junior ministers – all 19 new faces have joined Modi’s council of ministers as ministers of state. But then, it has been always noticed (something not unique to the Modi government) that the ministers of state are invariably neglected by their respective cabinet ministers, be it in terms of distribution of work or in sharing the trust. So how the induction of so many ministers of state will improve the functioning of the government or enhance the governance remains to be seen. As it is, with the latest inductions, the size of Modi’s council of ministers has gone up to 78, just four short of the permitted strength of 82 and one more than that of his predecessor Manmohan Singh.
This has naturally resulted in the criticism that such a large size did not reflect Modi’s promise of “minimum government and maximum governance.” In fact, one does not understand how or on what basis a relatively smaller ministry called Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (from the original ministry, two new ministries were carved out in the past – Ministry of Women and Child Development, and Ministry of Tribal Affairs), now has as many three ministers of state, apart from having a cabinet minister. In fact, no other ministry, including that of Home, Finance, Defence, External Affairs and Rural Development, has three ministers of state.
Thus, one may argue that the latest expansion is not important from the point of view of governance; its significance lies in giving due representations to social segments that will play an important role in winning state elections due in 2017 (like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat) and the eventual general elections in 2019. Of the 19 new faces that Modi has inducted into his team, five belong to Dalit communities, three to Scheduled Tribes and two to OBC . He also has brought some ministers from upper castes. And importantly, he has given wide representations — the new ministers come from 10 states (three each from UP and Gujarat, one from Uttarakhand and the rest from Rajasthan, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Assam).
At the same time, it is to be noted that almost all of Modi’s new inductees are lightweights and have little experience to occupy the high posts that they have. In fact, compared to the members of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, Modi’s ministerial colleagues remain not well educated. Except Najma Heptullah, who has a PhD in cardiac anatomy from the University of Denver, no other minister has a foreign degree (though an IFS friend tells me that General V K Singh has an MA from University of Pennsylvania). Five members of his cabinet discontinued formal education at class 12 or less, compared with two such members in Manmohan Singh’s team. Modi himself is a self-taught man, having done his post-graduation in political science through correspondence course. Interestingly, many of the new ministers have law degrees; in fact, they are now additions to nine lawyers who were already in the Modi cabinet. What this means is that in India, lawyers have a better chance than other professionals to have a successful political career.
As has been pointed out already, Modi seems to have gone back on his promise of a relatively small and compact ministry in which one minister will head a cluster of ministries that work in similar areas. Modi had said that a cluster of ministries “will bring more coordination between different departments, will be more effective and bring a speed in process. While the top layers of government will be downsized, there would be expansion at the grassroots level”. However, on a closer scrutiny, it seems that Modi’s promise has not been kept exactly. Skill development and entrepreneurship ministry should have gone with the labour and employment. Environment and climate change can be clubbed with river development. Food can very well go with agriculture.
In a sense, Modi has had his compulsions. As it is, the NDA allies are already disappointed that they have not got enough meaty ministries. Here, I am reminded of Sir Gerald Ellison, who had suggested after the end of the World War I that in Britain, or for that in any country, a Prime Minister can very well run the country with six core ministers looking after defence, external affairs, finance, manpower, social services, production, distribution and justice. “ The strength of the cabinet should be kept to the bare minimum consistent with efficiency, and this is not limited to financial grounds alone. “The smaller it was within limits the better it was likely to function”, he had argued, adding, government was a one man business, and assuming that the political leader was fit for his position, his range of functions fell broadly under two heads: supervision and decision.”
Be that as it may, there are two areas where I think Modi’s newest council of ministers reflects avoidable flaws. As India’s first Prime Minister who won the elections in a Presidential style (that explains why he is the most popular leader of India at the moment with his party registering a significant presence in every part of the country), he should not have constrained himself in picking experts or technocrats into his cabinet. We are talking of India emerging as a global power, but that is possible if India promotes basic science and technology in the country. Unfortunately, Modi has not shown any urgency in this regard. One does not see a single technocrat in Modi’s ministry.
Secondly, in the last general elections, in my considered opinion, Indians voted, arguably for the first time, as Indians and not in terms of their religion, caste and region. If that is the case, then why should have Modi cared for the caste or religion factors in choosing his cabinet and allocating, and this is more important for me, portfolios? Why should a minority like Najma Heptuallh should be given the portfolio of minority affairs? Why cannot she be given any other ministry? Why should a tribal leader like Jual Oram be given the charge of tribal affairs? Why cannot he be trusted with any other ministry? I thought Modi who had promised to be different would not have fallen for the stereotype ideas that a woman can only understand woman issues, that a Muslim can only know the minority concerns and that a tribal or dalit can sympathise with the woes of a dalit and tribal. I thought Modi would rise above these petty things and go by the competence or political weight of the person concerned this time. Regrettably, that has not happened.
By Prakash Nanda