Cabinet expansion: Mr Modi, was 'minimum government' a poll jumla?

As an aspirant for the Prime Minister's post in 2014, Narendra Modi had promised 'minimum government, maximum governance', an idea that added to his appeal as an efficient administrator and evidently caught the imagination of voters.

There could be many reasons behind Tuesday's Cabinet reshuffle — gender inclusiveness, delicate balance of caste equations, social, regional, electoral considerations or even a genuine hunt for talent. Be that as it may, the latest expansion proves beyond a shadow of doubt that halfway through Modi's tenure as PM, the slogan of 'minimum government' has been given a quiet burial.

On Tuesday, Modi elevated minister of state for environment and forests Prakash Javadekar to Cabinet rank and appointed 19 new ministers of state who took the oath in Rashtrapati Bhavan, bringing to an end his biggest expansion exercise since assuming office. The final list, vetted by BJP's ideological mentor RSS, was prepared after several days of hectic parleys between the PM, his senior Cabinet colleagues, BJP president Amit Shah and other senior party functionaries.

PM Modi with the council of ministers. PTI

PM Modi with the council of ministers. PTI

When he took oath as PM in May 2014, Modi had a Cabinet strength of just 45 — the smallest in 16 years. Part of a promised overhaul of the nation’s top decision-making body, it was seen as an urgent move to usher in greater accountability, cut the ballooning bureaucracy and streamline decision-making. A jumbo Cabinet invariably results in multiple authorities and intra-departmental clashes.

The first expansion in the council of ministers, undertaken in November 2014, saw the addition of four Cabinet ministers, three ministers of state (independent charge) and 14 MoS, increasing the total size from 45 to 66.

With Tuesday's expansion — taking into account the resignations of five BJP ministers in the form of Nihal Chand, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Manuskhbhai D Vasva and M K Kundariya — Modi's council now has a strength of 78, matching the number of ministers in the Cabinet headed by his predecessor Manmohan Singh. According to the Indian Constitution, the total number of ministers in the council cannot exceed 82, that is 15 per cent of the total number of members of the Lok Sabha.

Former PM Singh was the butt of frequent ridicule for leading a bloated Cabinet of 78 ministers (after the final rejig in October 2012). Much of the girth was attributed to the compulsions of coalition politics. The incumbent PM leads a party which won 282 seats in the 2014 general elections and along with NDA partners, commands 336 seats in the lower house of the Parliament. This is the highest number of seats won by any party on its own since Rajiv Gandhi's landslide victory in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls.

Among the new ministers who took the oath of office on Tuesday, Faggan Singh Kulaste, SS Ahluwalia, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi, Vijay Goel, Rajen Gohain, Anil Madhav Dave, Parshottam Rupala, MJ Akbar, Arjun Ram Meghwal, Jasvantsinh Bhabhor, Mahendra Nath Pandey, Ajay Tamta, Krishna Raj, Mansukh Mandaviya, CR Chaudhary, PP Chaudhary and Subhash Bhamre are from BJP. Anupriya Singh Patel is from BJP's Uttar Pradesh ally Apna Dal, and Ramdas Athawale comes from RPI.

Amid criticism that complex caste calculations have got precedence over the promise of a lean government focused on delivery, the government has been at pains to insist that merit has been given priority over political considerations and that the candidates have been rigorously screened for their ability to deliver "effective governance".

“The expansion comes after an exhaustive vetting and selection process to find the best talent,” one official told Financial Times. “People were assessed on the value they would bring to the union council of ministers.”

Looking at the appointees, however—five are Dalits, two are from the OBC communities and three from the Scheduled Tribes category. It is hard to avoid the impression that the appointments have a lot to do with the upcoming Assembly polls in seven states including the bellweather state of UP. Drawn from 10 states, there are three ministers each from UP and Gujarat, and one from Uttarakhand — places where elections will be held next year.

It is a carefully researched, exhaustive list but it misses Modi's 'government with a difference' mantra by a mile by placing faith in the political machinery rather than on performance.

The government is headed by a man who, after coming to power, dismantled the UPA's cumbersome bureaucratic ecosystem, merged several ministries, abolished standing committees, did away with a plethora of Groups of Ministers and Empowered Groups of Ministers. These were mechanisms that served to hold up decisions rather than speeding them, and contributed to the UPA's much-reviled policy paralysis. However, the latest expansion of the NDA government's Cabinet indicates a submission to the compulsions of electoral politics.

This is not to say that Modi has not delivered on his promise of 'maximum governance'. That would be blatantly incorrect. The Parliament, for instance, struck down 1,053 outdated laws in May this year. Modi's single-minded stress on deliverance has resulted in a leaner and more efficient bureaucracy. But a crucial realisation is missing—that India no longer remains the welfare state of the Indira Gandhi days and the government's role, therefore, needs to be curbed to a minimum.

Until that happens, 'minimum government' will sadly continue to remain a poll jumla.

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2016 12:04 PM

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