The Modi Cabinet Missed Opportunities
Predictably, cabinet-making exercise is always a delicate task. To the best of my memory as a political analyst, there has not been a single union cabinet whose selection has not drawn some flak or the other. Narendra Modi’s cabinet is not an exception to this phenomenon. For some, it is quite an amazement that Modi has not thought it fit to find competent people from a major state such as Rajasthan for a cabinet berth, despite the fact that the state has sent all its 25 members to the Lok Sabha who belong to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, Modi’s cabinet is lacking in the regional representation, whether it is Rajasthan or the hill-states or Bengal or the North-East.
Some critics have pointed out that Modi’s cabinet also consists of some individuals, who are perceived to be not “clean”, the image that they inherit from their past stints as ministers in the Vajpayee cabinet or as Members of Parliament. For others, his cabinet does not inspire much confidence. This school of thought is that with the possible exception about ten, others members of the Modi cabinet are lightweights and have little qualifications and experience to occupy the high posts that they have. In fact, compared to the members of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, Modi’s ministerial colleagues are 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 the new 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. In other words, unlike their predecessors under different Prime Ministers, Modi’s teammates do not possess high academic degrees. Of course, there are nine members with law degrees in Modi’s cabinet, same as in the Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.
Modi has cut back India’s council of ministers from 71 under the Manmohan Singh-led government to 46. Of course, this number is likely to go up when he expands his council of ministers over the next few weeks, something that has been indicated by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. But the number is unlikely go much higher if Modi keeps his promise of a relatively small and compact ministry in which one minister will head a cluster of ministries that work in similar areas. Not long ago, Modi had said that a cluster of ministries “will bring more coordination between different departments, will be more effective and bring 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.
But will Modi do it? As it is, the NDA allies are already disappointed that they have not got enough meaty ministries. Then there are many claimants within his own BJP. As pointed out already, various regions have not been well represented in the cabinet. Viewed thus, Modi must be under tremendous pressure to increase the number. Thus, his reputation as a no nonsense leader who sticks to his plans resolutely is at stake. Of course, a final word on this can only be said after he completes his cabinet-making after the next round of expansion. But 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 matter 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 three areas where I think Modi’s cabinet has 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’s present cabinet does not reflect any urgency in this regard. One does not see a single technocrat in Modi’s ministry. After a very long time, I see that the crucial Ministry of Science and Technology does not have a full-fledged cabinet minister.
Secondly, in the last elections, in my considered opinion, Indians voted, arguably for the first time, as Indians and not in terms of their religion, caste and region. I know for certain that many Muslim families, particularly the Muslim youth, have voted for Modi and the BJP by disregarding the conventional wisdom of voting tactically to keep the BJP out. In Uttar Pradesh I saw many Yadavs and Dalits supporting Modi openly by disregarding a Mulayam Singh Yadav or a Mayawati. Now, if that is the case, then why should Modi have 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.
Thirdly, Modi’s cabinet does not comfort me that he, unlike his predecessors, has tried sincerely to bring the crucial North-East to the national mainstream. The importance of the North-East should not be measured in terms of the miniscule MPs that the eight states of the region send to the Parliament. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the Modi-wave in the last elections started from the North East, given the impressive crowd he attracted during the election rallies all over the region. And he had promised them so much. But the region has been pathetically represented in his council of ministers. Given the huge strategic significance of the region, this is really unfair.
As our cover story this week suggests, much more than Pakistan and the Western sector, it is West Bengal and the North East that pose real challenge not only to India’s political stability but also to its very unity and integrity. Take India’s serious security concerns at the moment—Maoism, religious fundamentalism, illegal immigration, demographic transformations in border districts, drug-trafficking, currency-counterfeiting, illegal weapons-trade, sectarian conflicts, perverse identity politics, misgovernance that alienates huge sections of the society and dubious non-governmental organisations that are invariably critical of developmental issues under the pretext of human rights etc. All these have their strongest links with the North-East.
I have often argued that too much of our obsession with Pakistan from the security point of view does not really help anyone. You may have brilliant photo opportunities with Pakistani leaders, but nothing is going to change substantially as long as the Army rules Pakistan and promotes religious fundamentalism in that country. Much more important for us is the eastern and north-eastern regions which connect to Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, which along with India and Australia, will determine the contours of global politics and economy in this century.
Secondly, we should also remember that the areas that comprise today’s Pakistan did not want India’s partition in 1947. Partition became a reality because of the Muslim leadership in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and what is today’s Bangladesh. Viewed thus, illegal immigration and democratic transformation in the North-East (and West Bengal) are really frightening developments. No doubt, General V K Singh is a wonderful choice as the Minister for the Northeast. But what about the political representation of the region in Modi’s cabinet?
By Prakash Nanda