The possibility that Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi will opt for a smaller cabinet through rationalising and merging existing ministries into fewer but super-sized portfolios holds the promise of rejuvenating and streamlining the Centre’s decision-making processes. With a simple majority of its own and Modi’s apparent focussing more on performance than other considerations like seniority and ensuring balance in regional, religious or caste representation, the incoming BJP government is entering the portals of power from a position of great strength. An unintended consequence of coalition governments has been the need to create more ministerial berths and to satiate the large egos and the special interests that enjoy greater bargaining power with weak governments and prime ministers.
But the political imperative of such actions has run contrary to the multi-modal nature of many of these sectors. A unified energy, transportation or job-creation policy or a long-term vision has been difficult to achieve in the absence of synergy between bureaucratic departments hived off to function under these related ministries. Worse still, turf wars and conflicts between these ministries had slowed down governance and speedy decision-making. Media reports indicate that an energy ministry clubbing the existing power, petroleum and natural gas, atomic energy, coal, and the new and renewable energy ministries is on the anvil. An alternative would be to club mines, coal and the steel ministries under an infrastructure ministry as the over-dependence on coal is not going to go away any time soon. Similarly, a transport ministry merging the present railways, road transport and highways, and shipping ministries is the need of the hour as many Indian cities go about building multi-modal transit systems.
The perils of an exceptional mandate is that new voters, especially the young, could turn around if their expectations are not met and Modi seems to understand this. The talk of merging the departments dealing with youth affairs, skill development and medium and small-scale enterprises under one ministry is in line with the urgency of creating new jobs and boosting real economic growth that benefits the masses. The possibilities for mergers are endless. The agriculture, fertilisers, civil supplies and public distribution ministries; the civil aviation, tourism and culture ministries; and rural development and panchayati raj ministries are obvious candidates for such restructuring. These changes will also mark a departure from the dubious Group of Minister(GoM) mechanism extensively relied upon by Manmohan Singh. The GoMs circumvented cabinet and collective responsibility and undermined the authority of the Prime Minister while their benefits in terms of expedited decision-making have been a mixed bag.
Unlike past years when jostling for cabinet posts placed disproportionate focus on individuals, the attempt at restructuring ministries has succeeded in foregrounding the developmental issues that have to be synergised and tackled. As can be expected of Modi, who as Gujarat Chief Minister concentrated much power with himself and even held 14 portfolios at one time, reports that he would hive off internal security from the powerful home ministry portfolio is not surprising. With anti-terror operations, the Intelligence Bureau, and Jammu and Kashmir expected to come under this proposed division, Modi’s eagerness in shaping the national security agenda on his own terms is evident. An authoritarian Prime Minister will be a novelty for recent generations; but instances of mishandling could hurt Modi hard. Such concerns aside, Modi is making all the right moves.