Modi Misses a Trick

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

Shashi Tharoor suggests how the PM could actually create “Minimum Government” in New Delhi

President Ram Nath Kovind, First Lady Savita Kovind, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla in a group photograph with the newly sworn-in Council of Ministers, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi in 2021 (File photo) | PTI

So the long-rumoured Cabinet reshuffle didn’t happen after all during this session of Parliament, and we seem to be stuck with a super-sized Council of Ministers. For a man who seemed in 2014 to be promising a system re-design of our governance, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Prime Minister Modi has indeed missed a trick. The PM who dismantled the Planning Commission and asked his Law Ministers to give priority to abolishing obsolete laws could easily have used the last year of his second term to rethink our entire cabinet structure. Since he hasn’t done so, here’s an attempt he might well want to consider – if he was ever serious about his slogan of “minimum government”. He could reorganize his government altogether by abolishing many ministries and regrouping the rest.

What are the existing ministries that simply cannot be done without and so should remain intact? The four “big ones” – Home, Finance, Defence and External Affairs – brook no argument. Since agriculture still engages (“employs” would be a disingenuous word) 67% of our population, an Agriculture Ministry is indispensable. The core needs of our people -- health, education, transport, Law and Justice, and environment follow; so do some of the core responsibilities of government, to provide our nation with energy, and to steward our domestic commerce and industry.

That gives us 12 indispensable ministries. But the list can’t stop here: in a developing country the government has to undertake to help the nation grow and develop its urban infrastructure as well as meet the range of its rural development challenges, as well as promote tourism and build tourist infrastructure. Then we need a strong Prime Minister’s Office to help keep the whole lot in line.

That’s sixteen Ministries we absolutely can’t avoid retaining. Give each a Cabinet Minister and one or two Ministers of State (or Deputy Ministers), and you could have a Council of Ministers totalling no more than 40-45, with the PM and a 15-strong Cabinet at the helm.

So why do we have so many more Ministers today? Simple – the more ministries you create, the more political interests you placate. So functions that really belong together were divided up amongst different political heavyweights, not because they warranted separate governmental machinery but because the individual in question had to be given a chance to exercise authority over something tangible, however undemanding that share of the pie might be.

So though we have a Ministry of Industry, we have managed, over the years, to create separate ministries for Heavy Industries, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, steel, mines, textiles, chemicals and fertilisers, and food processing, all of which, properly speaking, are merely different kinds of industries. The heavy hand of regulatory and licensing authority in each of these industries was then exercised by a different minister in each case, spreading the clout (that comes from having the authority to grant permissions) to many hands. That’s anything but “minimum government”, and if Mr Modi meant it, he could have put a stop to it by merging the whole lot into one mega-ministry.

He seemed to have recognized this principle when, for a while, he clubbed together the separate ministries for coal, power, and new (or “alternative”) and renewable energy under one minister. But they still functioned as different ministries located in different buildings, and now are headed by separate ministers again. He still retained atomic energy in the PMO, and excluded the largest source of India’s energy, petroleum and natural gas, which stands as a ministry by itself. Wouldn't it have been more logical to have one all-inclusive Ministry of Energy to ensure that the nation has a comprehensive and co-ordinated energy policy – one that sees multiple sources of energy as elements in one national energy mix, needing policy direction from one Minister? Instead of a single Minister deciding, for instance, to alter the proportions of that mix, increasing the national output of solar, for instance, in preference to petroleum imports or incentives for coal production, we have different government policies on coal, alternative energy (wind and solar), and of course on the pricing of gas, petrol and diesel. Mr Modi has foregone an obvious win here for “minimum government”.

Similarly, shouldn’t the Agriculture Minister subsume Food and Public Distribution, while Consumer Affairs goes to Commerce? Yet currently these are three ministries (and Food Processing is a fourth). Forty years ago all of them came under one Food and Agriculture Minister.

One good step by the PM was to club our highways and shipping into one ministry of surface transport, but he has separated them again – and why should Water Resources and River Development be taken out, as he has done? After all, shouldn’t the minister be developing National Waterways for transport alongside National Highways? For that matter, should railways and civil aviation be exempt? After all, aren’t they all forms of transport of India’s goods and people, and wouldn’t costs and rates (e.g. for freight) charged in one sector impact the demand on the others? We could easily create a mega Transport Ministry to cover all this, supplemented by technical agencies for some of the complicated detailed work, like the National Highway Authority or the Airports Regulatory Authority, which already exist.

This raises the question of whether some kinds of work require a ministry at all. Do we need a Communications and Information Technology Minister, rather than just a competent regulatory authority in the areas of telecom and IT? And a Minister for Statistics and Programme Implementation, seriously? Why not appoint competent technocrats instead to each ministry to oversee implementation?

Mr Modi’s early decision to place the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs under the MEA was wise, especially since the former relies almost entirely on the latter to get its work done overseas, where its “clients” are. The same logic does not seem to have been applied, however, in keeping the Ministry of Law and Justice separate from those of Social Justice and Empowerment, Minority Affairs, Women and Child Development, and Tribal Affairs. Surely a Justice Minister’s job is to ensure justice for all? Some functions of the present ministries could then be placed in more logical departments – for instance, maternal health issues could go from the Women’s Ministry to the Health Ministry, minority education to HRD, and so on. Similarly, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation should be part of the Urban Development Ministry (just as rural housing and poverty alleviation in the countryside should be under the Rural Development Ministry). Where an issue is of sufficient importance, the PM could always declare a “national mission” that subsumes two or more ministries, and take the co-ordinating lead himself, as he has done with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or give it to a senior minister.

I would go farther and argue that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting can be abolished, as L.K. Advani had wanted, and that Prasar Bharati could be given genuine autonomy. The same for Corporate Affairs, which surely belongs to either Finance or Industry, depending on the issues involved. We also have a plethora of small ministries exercising functions that belong outside government, or in specialized institutions not requiring Ministerial intervention. These include Science and Technology (for which few ministers are qualified anyway) and Earth Sciences (which usually ends up in the PMO, where it is understandably neglected). Couldn’t the latter just go the Geological Survey of India and the former to Education?

Indeed, the Ministry of Human Resource Development was conceived by Rajiv Gandhi as an omnibus Ministry, but over the years it has been whittled down to just managing education, which is why I supported Mr Modi’s decision to rename it the Education Ministry. But why can’t Mr Modi reverse that trend? Why do we need separate Ministries of Skill Development, Labour, Culture, Youth Affairs and Sports, all of which were once under a single HRD Minister?

I am not seeking to diminish the importance of the tasks being undertaken, at least in some cases, by the separate ministries. But the answer lies not in creating more silos that make for inefficiencies in policy co-ordination and convey an impression of policy incoherence. The answer lies in giving real work to the Ministers of State to handle these portfolios under the overall direction of powerful Co-ordinating Ministers. Give real departmental power to Ministers of State, and you solve two problems in one; but also revive the post of Deputy Minister, and use it for the younger and less experienced MPs to work under Cabinet Ministers and MoS’es.

There, Mr Modi, you would have “minimum government, maximum governance”. Interested? Or might it be, as many fear, that the phrase is not an agenda for action, but little more than an election slogan for the sound-byte era, forgotten once it has served its purpose?

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