Why Narendra Modi’s new cabinet isn’t particularly impressive

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs the first cabinet meeting in Delhi on 27 May 2014.
Courtesy PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs the first cabinet meeting in Delhi on 27 May 2014.
Courtesy PIB

Everybody sets goals or targets to reach. Ordinary mortals may be spared judgement if they consider those objectives to be ends in themselves. But people who aim for key roles in public life cannot be afforded such luxuries because their work begins once they achieve their goal. Thus, they must have a vision beyond that goal. For almost three years, Narendra Modi ran a carefully calibrated campaign to become prime minister. He conducted his electioneering with precise planning and orchestration, running a campaign that consumed immense time, energy and resources. But on Monday, 26 May, when he took oath as India’s chief executive and unveiled his team, which is supposed to transform India, what we saw was somewhat underwhelming.

This was supposed to be an exercise in making a “dent” (whatever that means) in the process of ministry formation. The night before swearing in, the much cited handout released by Modi’s secretariat stated that he would adopt the principle of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance.” This, it said, was to be done by “transforming entity of assembled ministries to Organic Ministries” and by appointing cabinet ministers at the head of a “cluster of ministries.” Smart governance would be the focus, and this would be underscored by “downsizing” at the top levels and “expansion at grass root level.”

Some of the ministries that have been clubbed together are: External Affairs with Overseas Indian Affairs (Sushma Swaraj); Finance with Corporate Affairs (Arun Jaitley, who is also handling Defence); Urban Development with Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (Venkaiah Naidu); Road Transport and Highways with Shipping (Nitin Gadkari); Rural Development with Panchayati Raj as well as Drinking Water and Sanitation (Gopinath Munde); and Power with Coal as well as New and Renewable Energy (Piyush Goyal). In the last case, the designation of Piyush Goyal as a junior minister despite handing him charge of high profile ministries suggests that Modi may not be as bold a decision maker as people hoped—if he believes in someone’s talent, why not acknowledge it fully?

The stated guiding philosophy behind this merging of ministries is that the government was inefficient under the United Progressive Alliance because there were too many ministries. This is a simplistic analysis; the UPA suffered from political paralysis because, among other reasons, it had too many power centres, and not because it had too many ministries. If there is a need to tinker with existing structures to make governance more professional, then there are greater arguments in favour of de-clubbing major ministries—for instance, the behemoth Human Resource Development, which comprises various departments of education, would benefit from decentralising. Moreover, if the government is sincere about not concentrating power at the highest level, the number of junior ministers needs to go up significantly—they currently number 22, one less than the number of cabinet ministers.

The last time any significant alteration of ministries was done was thirty years ago, when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister and introduced ideas such as a separate environment ministry. Modi’s clustering move, while it has attracted praise, is not particularly novel—even in UPA I, related ministries had been clubbed together under the likes of Kapil Sibal (Science and Technology with Earth Sciences), Ambika Soni (Tourism with Culture) and TR Baalu (Shipping with Highways). While the performance of Modi’s team remains to be seen, as the leader, he has not infused new ideas into the system despite promising to do so, barring introducing the portfolio of Ganga Rejuvenation.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. 

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