As the news of the much-awaited Cabinet expansion started coming in on Tuesday forenoon, one was truly missing the excitement and wondering if the event had not lost its sheen. While the media got into the motion of pretending that it was dealing with a real big event, the names of the new entrants into the Cabinet failed to arouse much enthusiasm. With a few exceptions, most were little known faces with hardly much to show by way of accomplishments.
There was a time when a Cabinet reshuffle or remoulding of the council of ministers used to be the biggest news of the day and would make banner headlines on the front pages of newspapers. Those were the days when, despite a few distortions creeping into the system of governance, the government was still being run on the basis of a cabinet system that functioned within the parameters of a parliamentary system and the prime minister was just a little more than “the first among the equals”.
Ministers were established leaders in their own right and enjoyed political stature as well as mass following. There could be honest differences of opinion within the cabinet – remember the serious differences between former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her finance minister Morarji Desai? – and issues could be freely discussed and debated. However, things have come a long way since then and the cabinet system itself is under severe strain.
The unpalatable fact is that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has been for a long time functioning as a super-cabinet. Its position of primacy has been further strengthened and crystallised under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seems to believe that India has a presidential form of government.
People have forgotten that until Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, the prime minister’s secretariat used to be very small and the PMO came into being under super bureaucrat LK Jha, when Lal Bahadur Shastri became the country’s prime minister. It took large strides towards becoming a kind of super-cabinet under Indira Gandhi.
However, even Indira Gandhi had ministers in her government who could express their opinions and who ran their ministries themselves, something that is sorely missing in the Modi government. It is an open secret that even those cabinet ministers who have had a long political career and who have served as chief ministers of important states do not count for much and are often kept in the dark about the doings of their own ministries.
To some extent, this process had started under Manmohan Singh, when the corridors of power in Lutyens’ Delhi were abuzz with the talk that a lot of files used to go to Planning Commission vice-chairman and well-known Singh protégé Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
PN Dhar, who headed Indira Gandhi’s PMO for five years, frankly admits: “A prime minister is certainly the most powerful person in a parliamentary democracy.” However, he goes on to caution: “He is at the apex, but the apex, it must be remembered, is only a small part of the pyramid. Regardless of constitutional and other restraints, the personal power of the prime minister is limited by the constraint of time and the sheer size of government. A day cannot be stretched beyond a few hours,"
"No one, howsoever capable, can master the complexities of international affairs, economic policies, defence and security problems, and the complex host of thorny questions which daily land on his desk. The quality of a prime minister’s leadership depends on how and when he realizes the limits of power and, having done so, is clear about the uses to which he puts the power at his command. How he relates the apex to the rest of the structure determines the reach of his influence and sets the tone and temper of his government and administration,” Dhar said.
Has Narendra Modi been able to realise the limits of his power and has he been able to relate the apex to the rest of the structure? The question can be answered in full measure only after he completes five years in office. However, one can certainly hazard a guess on the basis of the last two years’ experience.
All indications so far tell us that all power has been centralised in his PMO and it has become the place where most decisions are taken. This has taken a toll on the collective functioning of the government and the cabinet system under which the cabinet, that is answerable to Parliament, deliberates and takes decisions.
As Dhar points out, no single person can be the repository of all knowledge and there is a limit to overstretching. Modi’s penchant for going solo is not ideally suited to govern a vast country with intractable problems.
It does not require great intelligence to see that the cabinet expansion has been effected keeping in view the forthcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat next year. This explains the induction of Dalit and OBC ministers in such numbers.
It is also ironical that a prime minister who often criticised his predecessor for having a large ministry and whose poll slogan was “Minimum government, maximum governance” has within two years been forced to match the size of the previous government. If Manmohan Singh’s government had 78 ministers, so does Narendra Modi’s.