It needs no repeating that the Union cabinet reshuffle will do nothing to improve the way India is governed or the way the Congress-led UPA is going to be perceived. Compromises have been made on too many fronts — from pandering to the Congress’ electoral fears in Andhra and Bengal, to ensuring that the youth brigade does not have a chance to outshine Rahul Gandhi — for the net results to be anything but underwhelming. In any case, 18 months is not the timeframe in which anyone can deliver.
What India needs is a new template for the executive — especially the way ministries are organised at the centre — to make it more effective. It does not matter whether the Congress is in power or the BJP or a Third Front, but without some or all of these changes, we are going to get zilch in terms of real improvements in governance and policy implementation.
For example, one wonders how a Jyotiraditya Scindia, despite being given independent charge of power, is going to solve anything, when the problems of the power sector relate to coal, oil, gas, nuclear energy and, above all, bankrupt state electricity boards. Scindia has no control over any of these factors that impact the power sector. He has been set up for failure.
How is Pallam Raju, the new HRD Minister, going to make India better educated when the whole of early and secondary education is largely in the state’s domain? Thanks to politics, even the few central institutions of excellence have lost autonomy, and are now slipping down international rankings. The Right to Education, despite being a central law, will succeed or fail not due to Raju’s efforts, but those of his state-level counterparts.
How is Veerappa Moily (Oily Moily to those who knew him as a Karnataka backstage operator some decades ago) going to rescue the oil sector when the UPA’s policies are simply against market pricing?
How is Sachin Pilot going to pilot corporate affairs to a better trajectory when the fortunes of companies depend on a whole host of other ministries — finance, mining, energy, commerce and industry, and so many others?
We could go on, but the point is this: you cannot have coherent law-making and improved governance in a fragmented executive where power is so distributed that ministries often work at cross-purposes.
The first and most important reform at the central executive level is thus to reduce the total number of ministries at the cabinet level.
If the world’s richest country, the USA, can get by with 15 central ministries, one wonders why India needs twice that number with cabinet representation, and thrice the number at the level of ministers of state and deputy ministers. Even the US has more ministries than it needs — for example, one wonders why they need a department of veterans when the ministry of defence could handle that quite well. India probably needs far less, but let’s assume that 15 is a good number for a start.
The second important reform is a corollary to the first. The point of having fewer ministries is to bring about coherence in policy-making and streamline ministerial functioning. For example, it makes no sense to have a coal ministry and an oil ministry and a non-conventional energy ministry and a power ministry — with nuclear energy coming under yet another ministry. You cannot have a separate coal pricing policy and a separate oil policy: energy is energy. The price of one decides which natural resource is used for power, and in how much quantity. What you need is an energy ministry that looks at all of them together and evolves policy that is internally consistent and coherent.
Today, coherence is a holistic approach, whether it is in regulation (the Srikrishna Committee, for example, has recommended a single financial sector regulator) or in government.
If we think about central ministries in terms of what they have to accomplish instead of reducing them into a sum-of-the-parts, it stands to reason that several ministries have to be collapsed into one: apart from the energy ministry, there is a case for collapsing the transport ministries (aviation, railways, surface transport and shipping) into one; there is an even stronger case for treating agriculture and rural development as one; and you need only one department of Justice, not a separate one for general law and another for corporate law.
The final list of ministries could well be these: home, finance, external affairs, defence, energy, transport, industry and trade, education, health and environment, urban development and housing, agriculture and rural development, justice, and labour.
So what would this kind of reorganisation achieve? Would the new heavy-weight ministries be overloaded with work? Can one transport ministry handle huge ministries like railways, aviation, road transport and shipping? Would this not reduce focus?
The answer is no.
Reason: the purpose of converging ministries is to evolve coherent policies, not to run the railways or shipping services. Moreover, the fact that there is only one transport ministry does not mean shipping will not get a junior minister or a separate department to look at special issues concerning this important sector.
The railways should ideally be corporatised and broken up into several operating companies that work to a common set of standards. Each corporatised railway can then, perhaps, be partially privatised to find its own resources for growth.
Similarly, there is no need for a steel ministry or a fertiliser ministry or even a heavy industry ministry. They are all industries — and can be treated like one under a separate ministry of industry and commerce.
The overall ministerial structure might perhaps work better with the creation of one new ministry — the Ministry of Government Assets, which would manage and maximise the performance of all government-owned assets, from public sector companies to land owned by the government. This ministry would be an important source of revenue for government, and would also ensure that there is no meddling in the management of public sector units or transparent sales of land.
India is too big and too diverse and too complex an entity to be run in the traditional way — by a division of power structures based on political exigencies.
Whether you are a reformist government or a populist one — like the UPA has tried to be so far — without a change in the structure of the central government we are going to get more waste and less government.