Prime minister Narendra Modi has directed his cabinet ministers to involve ministers of state, assigned to their ministries, in the running of their ministries, a practice that was not followed by cabinet ministers in earlier governments.
Did a Shashi Tharoor tweet have something to do with this decision? On May 26, the day the Modi government was sworn in, Tharoor had tweeted: "Advice to some being sworn in today: Being MoS is like standing in a cemetery — there's a lot of people under you but no one is listening!"
Tharoor was at Rashtrapati Bhavan when the 46-member Modi council of ministers was sworn in; 22 of them as MoS and 10 of these 22 given independent charge of an important portfolio while simultaneously seconded to assist a cabinet minister in handling another portfolio.
It appears Tharoor's tweet went right home to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). He said, "All MoS are allocated work. The issue is the authority they are given. If all files end up with the cabinet minister for decision, then no bureaucrat has to listen to an MoS even on the allotted area of work. I was fortunate that in the MEA, the work allocation came with signing authority on the areas I was allotted. This is the exception not the rule for MoS."
Cabinet ministers of UPA I&II were notorious for not allocating work to an MoS. Journalists attest to this. So do bureaucrats.
"The MoS," says a retired bureaucrat, "is an insignificant. He is given roles that pit against the public. When decisions of cabinet ministers go awry, MoS gets the brickbats and public scoldings. He's never called to cabinet meetings. He's always in the dark."
The story of the forced-to-be-dormant MoS is not new. Right from PV Narasimha Rao's time, the MoS has been an "aggrieved minister". During Atal Bihari Vajpayee's NDA rule, ministers of state in his government had gone in a delegation to Vajpayee and complained to him that they were being left in the cold by his cabinet ministers, and that he should correct the situation.
In 2009, when Manmohan Singh formed the government after winning another term, ministers of state in UPA-II met him in a group and demanded that cabinet ministers be told to allocate them "substantive work".
Both times, nothing ever happened. Things remained the same as they were before. Major decisions continued to be taken by cabinet ministers. Decisions on contracts, transfers, postings and appointments.
The reason: Internal distribution of work in a ministry is in the hands of the cabinet minister. Even the PM can't take away that prerogative and cabinet ministers are loathe to hand over powers to the MoS. It became even worse when coalition governments ruled.
Prime minister Narendra Modi appears to have dented that prerogative with his directive to his cabinet ministers to involve the MoS in the running of ministries.