When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he initiated two big bold government reforms in terms of the Cabinet formation.
One, Modi set 75 years upper age limit for offering granting ministerial berths. Two, he did away with the Group of Ministers (GoM) form of governance.
While the age cap did ruffle a few feathers, Modi soldiered on with his reform. By doing away with the GoM mechanism, he gave governance a new lease of life.
Ironically, titled as ‘empowered’ Group of Ministers, the UPA 2 era model came to be symbolised by governance paralysis.
At a time when all eyes are on the Prime Minister as he takes oath on May 30, it is fair to expect that he would be egged on by the unprecedented mandate to usher in the next big round of reforms in setting up his Union of ministers.
Minimum Government, Maximum Governance
There are many who believe Modi didn’t truly live up to his promise of minimum government and maximum governance in his first term. Now there is a mega opportunity to prove his critics wrong and most importantly give India a lean and mean Cabinet that means business like never before.
Even the most conservative politician sitting on the head of the table would be tempted to distribute patronage. That is realpolitik. But Modi has to choose between being popular among the political class or among citizens who have sky rocketing expectations from him.
To begin with, Modi can trim the size of his Cabinet. Article 72 of the Constitution prescribes that the total number of Ministers, including the Prime Minister, in the Council of Ministers shall not exceed 15 percent of the number of members of the House of the People. The amendment to the Constitution on the ceiling to the number of ministers was done as it was found that abnormally large councils of ministers were being constituted.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed his government for the first time in March 1998, he had 21 Cabinet and 21 Ministers of State some with independent charge. At the beginning of his second stint in October 1999, there were 22 Cabinet and equal numbers of Ministers of State. Subsequently, it was expanded to suit political expediencies.
The UPA-I and UPA-II led by Manmohan Singh began with over 50 ministers and at some stage the maximum strength was 78. On May 26, 2014, Modi cut the cabinet size to the smallest in 16 years. But in July 16, his cabinet equalled the UPA 2 number.
Most importantly, the size of the Union cabinet is a function of Modi’s ability to re-imagine the cabinet. There is sufficient room to merge and re-structure the portfolios to not only reduce the size but to bring about operational efficiencies leading to maximum governance with minimum government.
There are no perfect systems but this is what is eminently doable, and given his political capital it is perhaps the most opportune time to reform the government.
- An omnibus Natural Resources ministry combining the coal, mines, steel, and petroleum and natural gas ministries
This is the need of the hour given that India is very well endowed in terms of natural resources but we have failed so far to leverage them. Globally, much less endowed nations have far greater contribution to the country’s GDP than India. Natural resources rich countries like Canada and Australia have a unified natural resources ministry.
- Merging Power and renewable energy ministry
This has already happened. In Modi’s last Cabinet there was one minister driving both these intrinsically linked sectors. India is aiming to construct a credible and cogent electric vehicle (EV) policy but that is not under the renewable guard. There are ways, however, to mitigate the challenge.
- An Omnibus Health ministry with Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) as part of it
Currently, while health and family welfare is one ministry, one key component resides in other ministries. The pharmaceutical piece lies with the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers. Pharmaceuticals is an integral part of health. From drug pricing to drawing the road map for drug hygiene, it makes imminent sense to post it with the health ministry. There is a smaller element — food — that lies somewhere else which also should rest with the health ministry. The food standards are established under the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Consumer affairs, food and public distribution.
- Mega Infrastructure ministry merging roads, transport and highways, and shipping and ports
Infrastructure in a pure business sense includes power, aviation, railways, shipping, ports, roads and highways. But given the structure of the government and its focus areas, power, railways and aviation need an independent identity while the rest can all be clubbed under the mega infrastructure ministry.
- Food Processing as part of Agriculture ministry
Agriculture and food processing are two stand-alone ministries. There is need to merge the two given the on ground overlap. India has to vastly improve its production. Further, it has to improve processing of what its produces. The whole value chain has to get that much more efficient. This can only be possible if we have strong synergies in manning these two related units.
- Tourism and Civil aviation ministry merger
India’s under tapped tourism potential is a huge challenge. One way of improving the footfall, especially in the domestic piece is to make airline travel even more affordable. The Modi government initiated reforms in the first leg to make it easy for ordinary citizens to fly. We need to double up the efforts: build airline capacity and upgrade tier 2 and tier 3 airports to connect to more tourist spots across India. Aviation of course needs a quick solution given the ailing health of the business. The first step would be to privatise Air India and India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). A single ministry can fast forward the act.
- Commerce and Heavy industry as one ministry
There is urgent need to merge the core India Inc facing ministries. Why should there be a separate heavy industry ministry? Would it not make sense to merge it with the Commerce ministry? The remit of the merged entity would be to push for making India the global manufacturing hub and once that happens, create an impetus for exports. Linked to the two is the need to improve ease of doing business (both for the domestic and global business), especially at the last mile.
Re-christen — For evolved delivery
Additionally, we need to rechristen several ministries to obtain requisite focus from a delivery stand point.
- There is need to re-name the Labour and employment ministry as the Job Ministry.
- Ministry of Minorities ought to be renamed as Ministry of Equity or Inclusion ministry (given the new Modi slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishwas).
- Ministry of Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) ministry could be renamed as the Ministry of Entrepreneurship given Prime Minister’s push for job generation through enterprise.
- Ministry of Programme Implementation should be renamed as the Pragati or Tracking Progress Ministry.
- Ministry of Human Resources Development merits to be renamed as the Education Ministry. Human resource is primarily a corporate nomenclature.
The unprecedented mandate deserves these bold reforms. Initiating these would not only reduce the size of the ministry but bring about efficiencies in overall governance.
The government must learn from the corporate world where structures are constantly innovated upon for improving the bottom line orientation. And those who don’t change with time, time is not on their side.
Rakesh Khar is senior editor, Special Projects, Network 18. He writes at the intersection of politics and economy.