Why Modi's Cabinet reshuffle, too, was not to improve the effectiveness of government

Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan GuruswamySep 04, 2017 | 19:31

Why Modi's Cabinet reshuffle, too, was not to improve the effectiveness of government

Though we have a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, the fact is that ministers are appointed from the legislature. Our system is of a government by elected officials directing a permanent bureaucracy. This limits the elected prime minister to choosing from the elected pool available to him. His political support also depends on warding off the threat of factions by placating as many of them as possible. This is very unlike the American cabinet, which is appointed by the elected president.


The president chooses a Cabinet based on perceived abilities and their loyalty is only to the person who put them there. Since the number of divisions or departments is predetermined, the size of the US Cabinet is relatively small and it is better managed.

By contrast, India has 76 ministers. Some of these ministries are ridiculous in conception and size. For instance, we have a minister for drinking water and sanitation, as also a minister for urban development.

Logic will dictate that the provision of drinking water and the moving of sewage is an essential part of urban development. But such logic eludes ministry formation. Uma Bharti, whose sole initiative so far has been to organise a conclave of sadhus to pray for the purification of the Ganges, has to be provided for.

Uma Bharti has been taken out of the water resources ministry, but drinking water and sanitation - that she is in charge of - are missing in most of our cities and towns. Photo: India Today

I know for a fact that most ministers of state under a Cabinet minister have little to do. They are usually fobbed off with relatively lowly tasks. When I served in the finance ministry, the minister of state whose room was next to mine would keep inviting me to have South Indian coffee with him. His plaintive cry always was that he doesn't get any files and cannot decide on anything. He would ask me to intercede with the minister and have files sent to him. On paper, he was the minister for revenue with independent charge, but in practice he was just a title with a room.


Having so many ministers means having that many departments with identical bureaucratic structures. What then happens is the establishment of fiefdoms and fierce protection of turf.

I recall one particular expenditure secretary was vehemently arguing against a certain power project. The minister asked me to sort it out as the government had deemed the gigantic project to be critical. While preparing for the meeting I looked up the files pertaining to this project and discovered that the person who most strongly championed the project was our friend - the expenditure secretary, who was then the power secretary.

When I pointed this out to my colleague, he nonchalantly replied, "Oh I was power secretary then, I am expenditure secretary now!"

It was just a matter of turf. Much of government is hamstrung by such politics. Good government calls for small governments. Modi himself told us that he stands for less government and better governance. But he now ends up having 76 ministers.

Now to the reshuffle itself. A reshuffle is not like a management restructure. It is not a management method to improve the effectiveness of government. It is about creating perceptions and placating the political constituencies of religion, caste, region and gender.


Hence whenever there is a reshuffle, most perceptive observers are focused on who is in and who is out. Naturally, some of us also see whom we know and have made it. I have two who made it.

Hardeep Singh Puri and KJ Alphons are good friends. They have been waiting on the sidelines for long, valiantly defending a clearly underperforming regime.

Alphons was tipped to become the administrator of Chandigarh earlier this year but the two Badals nixed him.

India has 76 ministers. Some of these ministries are ridiculous in conception and size. Photo: Reuters

Hardeep was being nixed by Arun Jaitley and hence his appointment is an indicator of which way the wind is blowing. Former Union home secretary RK Singh was a trenchant critic of the BJP's Bihar leadership for its corrupt ways.

When he was home secretary he was a trenchant critic of the RSS and the man responsible for locking up Indian Army Major Prasad Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Thakur.

His selection is a signal to Sushil Modi. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's party got ignored. Clearly, he is like the dhobi's dog. Na ghar ka na ghat ka.

In a fairer world, Uma Bharti would have been dropped.

She has been taken out of the water resources ministry, but drinking water and sanitation - that she is in charge of - are missing in most of our cities and towns.

Rajiv Pratap Rudy's performance was more visible in Page 3 than in his ministry. My old friend Bandaru Dattatraya too got a well-deserved departure. He is famous here in Hyderabad as the minister for funerals and weddings. Of late, he has been doing birthday parties as well.

I think Sushma Swaraj should have been out. She has nothing to contribute in the MEA - she is all gab with little ability. But we must see the meeting at Rajnath Singh's house a day before the reshuffle with Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitely.

I see this as a sign of incipient dissidence. I think Narendra Modi had a bigger restructure in mind but was stymied by the heavyweights. They are now clearly not among the ones enchanted by or obliged to Modi. Will he now undercut them by shifting them to other portfolios?

In a more perfect world, Rajnath Singh too should have been shown the door or shifted he to agriculture and water resources. If Sushma needed a change, she should have got HRD. Many ministries could have been consolidated, as Modi seemed to be have been contemplating. But that was not so. So the focus was on the induction of "technocrats" and the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman to defence minister.

I think it was Neerja Chowdhury who called the induction four retired bureaucrats into the government as the induction of "technocrats" to give the government a new layer of professional competence. It seemed so then.

What Modi has done in his portfolio allocation is to enter mules in a horse race. Veteran diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri gets urban development. KJ Alphons, who has had longish tenures in urban development, gets information and broadcasting.

RK Singh who was Union home secretary gets power.

Satyapal Singh, a former Mumbai police commissioner gets HRD. So much for experience, technocracy and professionalism.

To top a day of wrong race entries, Nirmala Sitharaman got defence. Maybe she can convince us that buying 36 Rafales for about $8.6 billion is a better deal than buying 126 Rafales for $10.2 billion?

The real irony about the Sitharaman appointment is that it seems she is being rewarded for the fall of exports, because for most of her tenure - December 2014 to September 2016 - exports have been shrinking.

After a small bump in June this year to 1.3 per cent, they dropped in July by 6.8 per cent and in August by 0.3 per cent.

That is a record that would not hearten the military. And somebody please give her a copy of the CAG report and its comment on defence preparedness.

Defence has become a complex subject these days with the march of technology making obsolescence rapid and force multipliers more frequent. Israel, for instance, quadrupled the lethality of its Air Force in just two years with new technology and the same aircraft. The military is supposed to be provided with a Raksha Mantri's directive to the armed forces based on the government's appreciation of the security environment.

It has not been written for more than a decade. I doubt Sitharaman can or will be writing it now.

Last updated: September 04, 2017 | 19:31
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy