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
28 May, 2014

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.

Prime ministers need to head efficient decentralised teams. The problem in India is that so far ministry formation has mainly been an exercise in distribution of political largesse, balanced with securing the political dominance of the prime minister (or the power behind the throne, as in the UPA). Modi has not made a visible departure from this trend. He has also been hindered by the singular lack of talent in his party. How else does one explain choices like that of Juel Oram, who did not particularly distinguish himself as minister for tribal affairs in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, and who has now been handed charge of the same ministry again? Further, at a time when the budget is due for presentation in barely forty days, what was the rationale behind saddling Jaitley with Defence, apart from the twinned Finance and Commerce portfolios?

There was the expectation that Modi would induct professionals even if it meant including those who were not members of either houses of parliament, and would have to be elected later. But the two ministers who will need to be elected—Nirmala Sitharaman and Prakash Javadekar—are those whose professional skills are restricted to either stern press briefings or non-committal statements. One professional in the list who has no political track record at all is General VK Singh, who has been given independent charge of “development of north eastern region,” apart from being deputed to Sushma Swaraj to handle diplomatic protocol—although he has not exhibited skills in these areas.

Besides the big two—LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi—those who have been cast aside include Arun Shourie, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Bijoya Chakravarty (once a very important leader in Assam) and Satyanarayan Jatiya (who handled key ministries, including labour, under Vajpayee). Of these, Shourie and Rudy got left out probably because they were not in Modi’s best books. Meanwhile, Jatiya was probably excluded because the BJP had already inducted another leader from Madhya Pradesh, Thawar Chand Gehlot, based on caste calculations (Gehlot is one of three scheduled caste ministers in the council). This suggests that Modi makes identity calculations as much as his adversaries, even though he criticises them for it.

Modi is known for his authoritarian ways, and it was widely expected that he would not include those with whom his ties are frosty. After the massive mandate, the prospect remained that he would be free of all encumbrances and would appoint a team that would give him ample elbow room. The one compromise he had to make was to include sometime rival in the party Sushma Swaraj, and give her the plum MEA portfolio. Their working ties will be keenly scrutinised. Many Swaraj loyalists, such as Rudy and SS Ahluwalia, were left out after she was accommodated in the post of her choice, leaving her with little leeway to negotiate on their behalf. As result, Modi has been able to pack the team with loyalists.

Contrary to expectations, Modi did not hive off internal security from the home ministry, presumably because it would have made little sense for Rajnath Singh to shift from party headquarters for such a diminished ministerial profile. As a result, Modi does not have direct charge of internal security—but only of those ministries that were with Manmohan Singh and that have been traditionally retained by the prime minister, as well as the ambiguously worded, overarching  “all important policy issues and all other portfolios not allocated to any Minister.”

In the midst of his balancing act, Modi chose to ignore the principle of regional representation. It is one thing to keep your team small, but the council of ministers also needs to be a microcosm of India. It makes little sense for Modi to disregard this principle and not fulfill claims of even leaders like alliance partner Naga People’s Front’s Neiphiu Rio, who gave up being chief minister of Nagaland to play a bigger role in national politics and resolve the conflict in north eastern states—particularly Nagaland, where talks have made no headway for several years. But Rio has not been allocated a portfolio, and neither has any leader from Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim or Tripura.

So, how does all this square up? This is not the bold ministry-making exercise you might expect from a man who has led a party to winning a massive majority—rather it is an exercise whose compromises, adjustments and hesitations are clearly visible. While the political team Modi has put together is not particularly impressive, the next few weeks will show how he goes about merging the bureaucracies of the combined ministries. It remains to be seen if he supplants the present lot of bureaucrats with a new group. But that is easier said than done. No new Gujarat model is yet in sight; this is only an attempt at remodelling. Clearly, Modi knew where to arrive through his political campaign, but is yet to display if he knows where he is heading and how.

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