Cabinet Reshuffle Needed?

The snowballing controversy over the remark made by Union minister of state for external affairs General VK Singh (retd) following the murder of two Dalit children in Faridabad has focused the spotlight on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. General Singh’s remark shows that technocracy is a necessary – but not a sufficient – condition for ministers. They need political nous as well.

Quadrilateral power structure

Prime minister Modi runs the government through four layers: One, a powerful prime minister’s office (PMO); two, a relatively low-key union cabinet; three, a calcified, overstaffed bureaucracy; and four, a scattering of understaffed institutions like Niti Aayog.

Three sides of this quadrilateral power structure need strengthening. Only the PMO, though over-centralised, is doing a good job. The cabinet isn’t (more of that in a moment). The bureaucracy hasn’t shed its insouciance and is part of the wink-and-nudge Lutyens’ ecosystem that presided over the UPA establishment’s decade of scams.

The fourth layer – a clutch of institutions – has not yet come into its own. Niti Aayog replaced the Planning Commission a year ago but is not yet quite pulling its weight. Much of the Planning Commission’s role of allocating funds for projects and to the states has fallen on an already overburdened and not particularly visionary finance ministry.

The key problem lies in the uneven quality of ministerial talent in the cabinet. Fix that and the bureaucracy and supporting institutions like Niti Aayog will fall into place. For instance, Niti Aayog’s recent proposal could provide a regular income to drought-hit farmers by leasing their agricultural land. A ten-member committee has been formed headed by former commissioner for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) and director of Council for Social Development (CSD) Dr T Haque. The report is expected to be submitted by December. If implemented, the new agricultural land lease law will be just the boon financially stressed farmers need.

Arun Jaitley holds three portfolios – finance, information and broadcasting (I&B), and corporate affairs. The finance ministry has not distinguished itself in the past 17 months. Its several missteps: not forthwith repealing retrospective taxation; allowing the central board of direct taxes (CBDT) to impose a retrospective minimum alternate tax (MAT) on FIIs before being forced to withdraw it; and delivering two budgets (July 2014 and February 2015) lacking clear economic vision. India’s economy is growing at over seven percent a year not because of the finance ministry but despite it.

The recent high-level personnel changes in the previously moribund Enforcement Directorate (ED) and a more proactive policy on prosecuting economic offenders from the UPA regime signal a robust change in intent – notably absent till now. Jaitley, too, provided a strong and necessary critique of the Supreme Court verdict on the National Judicial Accountability Commission (NJAC): “Indian democracy cannot be a tyranny of the unelected and if the elected are undermined, democracy itself would be in danger.”

The performance of the I&B ministry has been particularly disappointing so far. The government’s significant achievements have not been professionally communicated. Media management has been poor. An already notoriously hostile press has been provided ammunition. Select editors – many of whom have a long history of animosity towards Modi – have been mollycoddled. The result: the worst of both worlds – lack of effective media communications with those in the media who are relatively neutral and tacit encouragement to those who are implacably hostile to Modi.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar is honest and modest. Alas he may, as Winston Churchill said in a different context, have much to be modest about. The one rank, one pension (OROP) issue was poorly handled. Though Parrikar had approved the OROP file in March 2015, it got stuck in the finance ministry for five months. Parrikar did not have the clout to catalyse the process. It eventually needed the PMO’s intervention to prise the file out of the finance ministry. The delay in issuing the official notification on OROP (the model code of conduct during the Bihar elections notwithstanding), and the veterans’ unhappiness with the outcome, shows how an opportunity to win back the trust of our men and women in uniform has been lost.

On defence purchases, too, it is the PMO that is driving the agenda though to be fair Parrikar has lately done well to indigenise key defence procurements, including much-needed artillery guns, battle tanks and fighter aircraft, from private sector Indian firms such as L&T, Reliance, Mahindras and Bharat Forge.

The recent decision by Boeing to manufacture fighter jets and other aircraft in India is part of Parrikar’s strategy to both accelerate the Make in India initiative and solve the chronic shortage of battle-ready air squadrons.

Though the prime minister recently praised the work of railways minister Suresh Prabhu, the rising number of train accidents, the slow progress of high-speed train projects and a laissez faire attitude to reforms within Indian Railways as suggested by the Bibek Debroy committee, had earlier drawn a sharp written response from the PM’s principal secretary Nripendra Misra.

To Prabhu’s credit, the pace of railways reform is beginning to pick up. As he said in an interview to The Economic Times on October 18, “Railways has to be profitable organisation. It has to be economically sound. So, unless it is commercially driven, it can’t serve social interests.”

The performers

There are obviously several ministers who are performing well. Nirmala Sitharaman has been an excellent commerce and industry (and corporate affairs) minister. Her negotiations in global forums, on especially trade, have been exemplary. Power, coal and renewable energy minister Piyush Goyal too has done well, beavering away quietly at reforming India’s coal and power industries. (The next round of coal auctions must, however, not be delayed any further.)

Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari is said to be building 17-20km of highways per day. If that continues, and tenders are given transparently, he will vindicate the prime minister’s recent praise of his work. Petroleum and natural gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan has been another quiet performer, carefully navigating the treacherous terrain of his high-profile ministry.

The performance of most other ministers has ranged from indifferent to poor. Some like culture and tourism minister Mahesh Sharma have embarrassed the government. The civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju has not distinguished himself either. General Singh has been a disappointment – and not only for his thoughtless remarks.

In the middle range of performance lie telecom & IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, skill development and entrepreneurship minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, home minister Rajnath Singh, environment minister Prakash Javadekar, HRD Minister Smriti Irani and law and justice minister Sadananda Gowda. They are hard-working and well-intentioned. But they all have the potential to do better.

The best performing minister in the Modi cabinet (ironically his strongest rival before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were announced) is external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

She has dealt coolly and efficiently with various crises involving Indians in Yemen and elsewhere, gave a tough but nuanced response to Pakistan at the United Nations and has uncomplainingly allowed Modi to front foreign policy while she looks after the nuts and bolts.

With just over three-and-a-half years to go before the next Lok Sabha election, the prime minister should now consider reshuffling his cabinet. Bring in a handful of experienced professionals and technocrats – especially in finance, railways, education, technology and healthcare.

The bureaucracy is crafty. It needs strong, no-nonsense ministers who have impeccable domain knowledge as well as political maturity to neutralise the default setting of corruption and sloth in the Lutyens' ecosystem the Modi government inherited. more  

View all 14 comments Below 14 comments
Modiji should be very strict on cabinet Ministers speeches and remarks which reflectand damage his image.He should keep up his worthynes by removing or by taking firm action. Better to go for a reshuffling on performance. more  
Somehow I feel that bjp/supporter should not participate in any media "debate" or respond to any of media's "initiatives"... more  
The progres report given by Mr.Swapnil Mehra is Very good. Shri Modiji should have also done such Performance oriented reports in respect of every Minister. The PMO can evolve some system to give marks or grade for the Ministers for their performance and this can be taken into consideration say once in a quarter or six month. Certainly PM may be watching the performance of each Ministers and already could have thought about reshuffling and adding new faces during winter session. As suggested by writers above, the important Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may be separated and Arun Jaitley may be allowed to concentrate on Finance Ministry which needs more attention. A right person for the I&B ministry should be chosen right now, so that the performance of Modi Government should be properly highlighted in the Government channels, more  
I agree fully with Mr. Swapnil Mehra that in Modi's cabinet Sushma swaraj is the best perming Minister. Suresh Prabhu is a big disappointer though people had lot of expectation from him. Railway needs fast change and actual speed of change is very very slow. In Railway there is every where corruption spread without any check. To check this it needs a determined minister a tough decision maker and a tough task master too. The cabinet reshuffle is over due since Jaitley needs to concentrate on Fiance only other portfolio has to be given to good working members. The no performer must be shown the way more  
Although the minister did't mean what is being snowballed into a big issue against Dalit/minority during on-going Bihar election. This issue has potential of damaging BJP. The selection of people in union cabinet is done on their merit but many of them are coming from the different varied background. Therefore lacking political acumen and sensivities of people particularly with media mostly hostile to Modi govt.. Creating issues out of an unneccessary quote.. more  
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