One unambiguous message that emanates from Tuesday's cabinet expansion of the Modi government is that the governance in India, premised on the 'collective responsibility of the cabinet ministers', has over the years mutated into a 'presidential form' of government – slowly echoing a singular power system, like in the United States.
This clearly means that the stature of the prime minister dwarfs his cabinet colleagues so much that most of them are reduced to insignificant entities. Take for example the names of the 19 new ministers inducted in the council, and the five ministers who were axed; none with a few exceptions are etched in people’s perception for their distinct identity, or are known for their exceptional oratory skills and influence on national politics.
Of course, the expansion of the council of ministers can also be interpreted as a deft move to give representation to people who fall beyond the power politics of the charmed circle of Lutyens' Delhi. This indeed is a positive trend, given the country’s size and diversity. But the fact that none of these leaders have the stature of being regional satraps marks a distinct deviation in the method of governance.
Constitutionally in India, the prime minister is accorded the status of “first among equals” in the council of ministers. His numero uno position entitles him to choose his council of ministers to run the government. Yet, there have been instances when union ministers have held statures rivalling that of the prime minister.
Leave aside the past, when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was assisted by an equally powerful deputy prime minister and home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a powerful home minister in LK Advani and an important leader like George Fernandes.
Though differences between Vajpayee and Advani were quite discernible on their approach to handling issues like Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan, they teamed up as one to lead the country. Advani’s elevation as deputy prime minister was taken as his anointment as the shadow prime minister.
The situation had taken a curious turn in 2004, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi chose to nominate Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, whilst herself taking the backseat. Though in people’s perception, Singh emerged as the 'weakest prime minister' India has ever had, there was enough evidence to prove that he did not hesitate before taking decisions, ignoring his colleagues who tried to resist his approach. The planning commission, under the leadership of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, emerged as yet another power centre through which files were routed.
The perfect chemistry between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh enabled the UPA government to last for ten years. However, it created the perfect situation where people’s yearning for a strong prime minister found its expression in the form of Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In his campaign, which was modelled on the US presidential style, Modi projected himself as a 'strong leader' capable of leading the country away from uncertainty, weakness and corruption.
There is little doubt that Modi won a clear mandate based on his own image. Even regional satraps like Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia found themselves marginalised as Modi's shadow loomed large over them before the elections. In the post 2014 situation, Modi has veritably acquired an iconic status that fits into the 'presidential model' of governance, if not de jure then de facto.
Curiously enough, the most ardent advocates for this model of governance belong to an old genre of leadership within the BJP and the Congress. Congress leader Vasant Sathe was known for favouring this model of governance. More recently, LK Advani theoretically supported the idea, and favoured to explore the idea of the presidential form of government.
Modi's cabinet expansion on Tuesday has informally confirmed that, unlike the past, the council of ministers would be an extension of the Prime Minister's Office. And there seems to be nothing wrong in it, as the buck stops with the prime minister.