Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Cabinet Reshuffle: What To Make Of PM Modi's Minimum Govt Promise?


Minimum government this certainly is not. Team Modi now comprises of 78 ministers - same as Manmohan Singh's Council of Ministers.

Modi started his prime ministerial stint in 2014 with only 45 ministers, and this was widely flaunted as his commitment to minimum government. At that time, this writer had pointed out that Modi's was a lean government, not a minimum government. But now it is not even a lean government. Seventy-nine is just a smidgeon short of the 81-member cap that the ninety-first amendment of the Constitution sets (15 percent of the strength of the lower house).

So what exactly does Modi mean by minimum government? In the May 2014 article, this writer had pointed out that minimum government is not about numbers, that it is a philosophy and a certain view of the role of the state, which Modi did not seem to have grasped.

Two years on, he still does not seem to have understood the essence of the philosophy of minimum government.

When asked, at an interaction with a group of journalists, about his minimum government, maximum governance slogan, Modi replied: "Earlier, a cabinet note used to take at least three months to get prepared. Now files are getting cleared in 15 days to one month; there could be exceptions. . . . Earlier the government used to work in silos, it no longer works in silos."

Sorry, but that may be maximum governance but definitely not minimum government.

There is no denying the Modi government's focus on maximum governance. Initiatives like those on ease of doing business and the direct benefit transfer of welfare benefits were part of this and have met with fair degree of success. As this interview with Amitabh Kant, CEO of Niti Aayog shows, Modi is particularly keen on ensuring that governance delivers on the ground. Outcome monitoring will be the key to ensuring that the government performs. The fact that one criticism thrown at the Modi government is that it is a more efficient UPA-3 shows that the maximum governance theme is working.

But minimum government has to go beyond cutting red tape and e-governance initiatives or even efficient functioning. There has to be a fundamental re-orientation of the role of the state. The government's energies cannot be spread thin across a range of areas it has no business to be in; the focus has to be on its core responsibilities - law and order, external security, the provision of public goods (physical and social infrastructure) and providing a safety net for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Why should there be a ministry of culture managing bodies like Sangeet Natak Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi? Why should the government be in the area of culture at all? The history of government involvement in culture is replete with stories of patronage, nepotism and corruption.

Supporters of this government will say that Modi will rid these bodies of all these ills, but can he? Does he have the bandwidth to look into myriad issues which have no bearing on issues of development, employment generation and poverty eradication? Even if he has, should he be wasting that bandwidth on these issues?

It could be argued that the state should not withdraw from education, but the state role in education needs a fundamental recast. The emphasis should be on funding - not provisioning - elementary education and creating a facilitative environment for private initiatives in secondary and higher education, and regulation with a light touch. But that clearly is not happening.

Instead, what we got was a ministry of human resource development shooting off circulars about how to celebrate/ observe anniversaries of departed leaders, canteen facilities in higher education institutions, interfering in student politics and arm-twisting universities to change an approach to academics.

A minimum government will think of winding up institutions like the Film and Television Institute of India and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication instead of putting party favourites as heads or as faculty.

A minimum government will slowly withdraw from running businesses and not see disinvestment and privatisaiton as a route to shore up government revenues.
In January 2015, however, Modi appeared to have internalised the minimum government philosophy when, speaking at the ET Global Business Summit, he said the state was needed for just five things: public goods (defence, police and judiciary), a regulatory system for negative externalities, checking monopolies, to plug information gaps and ensure people can make informed choices, a well-designed welfare and subsidy mechanism to ensure that the poor are not deprived of basic services, especially education and healthcare. He also spoke about how the government had no business to be in business.

But the subsequent actions (or non-actions) of his government belied that hope. The current cabinet expansion-cum-reshuffle also does not provide evidence that he is firm on minimum government. But will this 78-strong Council of Ministers result in a dilution of his maximum governance promise too? One will have to wait and see.

No comments: