Opinion

Mid- Term Cabinet: Amid Great Expectations

Cabinet-The Dispatch
The size of the Council of Ministers, fixed as not more than 15%  of the number in Lok Sabha,   can go up to 81 members. The new Council is just three short of this size. Of the 78 members of the Council of Ministers, 36 are new faces and seven elevated while 12 members of the  erstwhile Council (7 Cabinet and 5 junior ministers) have been dropped. Comments on additions and subtractions cannot be prohibited though substantive considerations behind the final choice  are known only to a very few decision-makers.

Mid-term Cabinet reshuffle, though anticipated for some time, has come as a surprise to insiders  as well as outsiders. It raises great expectations for tackling problems of the pandemic ravaged  country struggling to make up the losses while continuing the battle against the deadly virus. In the context of Covid-19, the Cabinet reshuffle has more than ordinary significance.

The exercise suggests that administrative considerations have weighed equally with political calculations. Indian democracy working through very active political parties must get the credit for raising political awareness and interests of the people. The problem is caused by over-zealous action behind leaders even without some knowledge of situations and issues. Cabinet formation  and reshuffle in such an atmosphere cannot be for merely sharing power with friends or  distributing patronage.

The size of the Council of Ministers, fixed as not more than 15%  of the number in Lok Sabha,   can go up to 81 members. The new Council is just three short of this size. Of the 78 members of the Council of Ministers, 36 are new faces and seven elevated while 12 members of the  erstwhile Council (7 Cabinet and 5 junior ministers) have been dropped. Comments on additions and subtractions cannot be prohibited though substantive considerations behind the final choice  are known only to a very few decision-makers.

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister effected a major reshuffle of his Cabinet in February 2020, eight months after forming his first ministry in July 2019. The  provocation  for the change seemed to be UK’s official withdrawal from the European Union in January 2020 – a  decision of far reaching significance. In India, handling Covid-19 pandemic and its economic, social and   other consequences have hastened the Cabinet reshuffle.

Pandemic control is not exclusively in the domain of medical personnel. It is a challenge to the governing authority in a country, and requires coordinated action of experts from various fields  and also a high degree of administrative and managerial capabilities. The choice of a non-medical person to head the Health Ministry replacing a medical doctor has received some  adverse comments. The change is no reflection on the performance of anybody, but necessary to tap different ideas of pandemic management as a social  problem. Any minister holding this  portfolio, has to take medical decisions in consultation with a team of medical experts.

The responsibility of the government and its workload have suddenly increased manifold. The  need for coordination between departments and ministries, and between the Centre and States has reached its peak unknown in normal  times. Cabinet reshuffle at this time by any well-meaning government cannot be done as patronage politics as some critics are prone to think.

The NDA is an alliance of 28 partners including the BJP, which has majority of its own members  in the Lok Sabha, but has been following the practice of accommodating its allies also in the Council of Ministers. These allies account for 29 seats in Lok Sabha and 17 in Rajya Sabha.  Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal quit the NDA while the AIADMK remains but is no longer  the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. Some individual leaders with substantial following in their States have been of great support for the BJP in strengthening its position in those States. In MP, it captured power because of defection of a popular leader with his team from the Congress to its side.

In the present Cabinet, only three of the 27 alliance parties  –  JD(U), LJP, and Apna Dal are  represented.  It cannot, therefore, be said that the reshuffle is made to keep allies in good  humour to retain their support in Parliament and coming elections.

Reshuffling, no doubt, gives opportunity to the leader to reward loyalty and performance,   express disappointment over lack of wanted results and/or public statements and postures of the   colleagues causing embarrassment to the government. In the present conditions, conquering  Coronavirus, reaching medical facilities to every nook and corner of the country, achieving total inoculation, rebuilding the economy, reopening educational institutions and all workplaces – in short returning to pre-pandemic life with possibilities of at least normal growth and development  are common people’s expectations.

The composition of the new Cabinet presents a fair degree of regional balance, and includes 12 SC, 8 ST, 27 OBC members besides religious minorities. The culture of disturbing Parliament procedure has directly led to the enhancement of the role of the Cabinet in discussing and taking  decisions. Inclusion of backward classes and minorities will give opportunities to these   communities to represent their class interests, if any, before taking decisions. So also, less represented regions have received attention.

The average age of the members is 58 – lowest so far  — a  new feature worthy of watching to find out whether younger Cabinet really brings any improvement in performance or it is  only a fanciful or wishful  thinking.

Presence of 41 ministers with professional background in the team is an acknowledgement that the job of the ministers does not centre around power and politics specialised by career politicians and political heirs, but lies in the field of action based on knowledge and managerial   efficiency. There are 7 ex-civil servants in the new Cabinet. Indeed, we want “philosopher kings” to run the country. Fitness of the chosen persons to the places allotted will be known very soon in the present condition of the nation.

The Ministry of Cooperation is a new ministry created for realising the vision of “sahkar se  samvriddhi”(prosperity through cooperatives) in the words of the Prime Minister. The  government statement says that it will work “to streamline processes for ease of doing business for cooperatives and enable the development of multi-state cooperatives”. It will help to make the cooperative movement a truly people’s movement reaching to grassroots so as to promote   government’s commitment to  “community-based developmental partnership”.  Creation of this ministry has without fail raised criticism of encroachment in the sphere of States by the Centre as “cooperatives” is included in the State List in the Constitution. Cooperative movement is strong in some sectors like agriculture and dairy, sugar industry, handloom,    housing, and banking and in some States particularly Gujarat, Kerala, and Maharashtra.

Constructive ideas are needed to build our economy with indigenous institutions with which people are familiar.The new ministry can reinvigorate and facilitate the movement that is declining fast due to several reasons including mismanagement and corruption. It will concentrate on multi-state cooperatives not confined to one State and serving the interests of more than one State as envisaged  under an enactment of 2002.  A separate administrative, legal, and policy framework for strengthening the cooperative movement is the object of creating the ministry. However, it will require  an Act of parliament to notify this ministry.

Critics tend to imagine causes behind every change and circulate fantastic theories to feed  people’s curiosity. The best is to accept the changes as it is the prerogative of the PM to form his cabinet and keep watching the differences in governance as a result of changes before rushing to the media with criticism. The Prime Minister’s responsibility and accountability remain the  same.

 

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About the author

Dr S Saraswathi

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