Tuesday, May 27, 2014

PM Modi’s Cabinet: Divining a Message or Signal

Since the announcement of the Cabinet I have been asked many times, what I think of it. As a partial answer to this question here are some observations.

1.     The Prime Minister has signaled that he is keen to follow Parliamentary Procedures and conventions and lay to rest any concerns about his adopting a Presidential form of Governance.  He has done this by restricting his Council of Ministers to members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, with only a few exceptions, despite having the option of getting them elected to either house within six months of being sworn in as ministers.

2.     The cabinet also signals that PM Modi is going to take an evolutionary, reformist approach rather than a revolutionary one. Given the apparent consensus in the BJP and the RSS, members over 75 have been excluded from the cabinet. However, the seniority and standing of the leaders in the party hierarchy has been preserved by and large.  This is suggested by the Order of precedence adopted for his cabinet ministers. This has not however, stopped the selective promotion of those that PM Modi considers deserving of such promotion, namely those he feels can help in the achievement of his government’s objectives.

3.     The size of the cabinet has been substantially reduced, in line with the promise of “Less Government more Governance”. The manner which this has been done suggests a pragmatic, problem solving approach. Thus for instance power and coal ministries have been assigned to the same minister. Given the history of bickering and conflicts between these two ministries in the last 3 years and before, the new minister will be expected to sort out these issues himself instead of them being kicked around between ministries and coming to the Committee of Secretaries or the Cabinet.  The speed of government decision making will certainly improve because of this re-organization.

4.           I am a little uncertain whether enough has been done to club together or reduce the prominence of Departments that either run businesses (such as textiles, steel) or which cover Sectors that are clearly  State subjects.  The PM and BJP leaders have said earlier that the “Business of Government is not to run Business.” In other words Government must focus on the delivery of “Public Goods” (like roads, rivers) and “Quasi-Public goods and services” (‘infrastructure’).  Similarly the PM had talked earlier of enhancing the role of States in National Governance.  What better way to start than to reduce the role of the Central Bureaucracy in subjects that clearly fall within the domain of the State Governments like Agriculture, Labour, Education and Health. Given the fact that Shri Modi works such long hours and reportedly monitored every target and achievement of the Gujrat Govt as CM, It is likely that PM Modi will keep a tight grip on policy matters in these Ministries, to ensure that the broader objectives and direction is achieved.

5.         The Fact that a Defence Minister has not been sworn in with the other heavyweights, is intriguing.  It suggests that the person the PM intends to appoint is not a member of the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha.  If true, the PM has deliberately chosen not to use the technicality that a non-member of either house can hold charge as Cabinet Minister for 6 months. This indicates his desire to make such a senior appointment without violating Parliamentary propriety (consistent with point made at start). 

6.        Another noteworthy fact is the high proportion of Women in the Cabinet (25%).  As noted by others, most if not all, these women appear to be very hard working, competent and articulate.  The fact that geographical,  regional, Caste and religous balancing has been given a little less weight than usual, will have the positive side effect of making more room for merit and performance in cabinet ministers (assuming it can be sustained despite political counter attacks). The choice of Shrimati Smriti Irani as HRD minister has been widely discussed. In my view, as a young person, she is likely to be more open to new ideas like e-learning, educational software and broadband connectivity, in contrast to old mindset of brick and mortar institutions. Though low experience is a risk factor, the HRD ministry has under it a "brains trust" of institutions and individuals to draw on, if the Minister so chooses.

7.     Shri Arun Jaitley was expected to become Finance Minister from the time that Shri Modi was named PM candidate of the BJP, and he will help restore confidence in both indian business and foreign investors. Other critical economic & infrastructure ministries, have, by and large been put under individuals who are capable of doing a competent to very good job.  Given recent history, I think it was naïve to expect non-political professionals to be made Ministers. We should, however, expect more professional appointments at the administrative and advisory levels given the choice of Shri Nripendra Misra as Principle Secretary to Prime Minister and of Ajit Doval as National Security Advisor.

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