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|October 14, 1999||
Business Commentary/ Mahesh Nair
Will the jumbo council of ministers aid the reforms?
One step forward, two steps back.
The swearing in ceremony started off at 10.30 am on October 13, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as the 15th prime minister of India. Around noon, when I clicked the remote controller back to Doordarshan, India's national television channel, ministers were still being sworn in. The saga continued at 12.30 pm. I lost count of the number of faces, my patience and decided to see the list in the morning papers.
A 70-member ministerial team has taken up office to tackle India's affairs. Last time around, there were 39 to perform the same task. Has the job become more complicated now? I don't think so.
So have the compulsions of more allies -- there are four more this time -- dictated the increase in number of ministers? That is a hard one to digest when you consider that instead of four or say eight more berths, we have a whopping 31 more!
Last year, when Kalyan Singh had sworn in a jumbo-sized 90-member council of ministers in Uttar Pradesh, most senior BJP leaders had shrugged the embarrassment off. They defended the chief minister's action saying that it was dictated by political compulsions. UP was scheduled to go for assembly polls soon and what better way to curb discontent than by offering ministerial posts?
Is political instability the reason behind Vajpayee's decision to double the size of his team?
For a person whose first statement after winning a majority of seats was that the NDA government "will have to take tough measures" and "usher in the second phase of economic reforms", the size of the ministry and its composition is disconcerting. Take, for instance, ministries directly related to the economy.
Yashwant Sinha (finance), P R Kumaramangalam (power), Kashiram Rana (textiles) and George Fernandes (defence) have retained their ministries. That is good for continuity. Jagmohan who was in communications earlier before being shunted to urban development, is housed once again in the latter ministry. So hopefully the file on foreign direct investment should move ahead with the same jottings. Ditto with Ram Jethmalani in the law and justice ministry -- but the fact that he has also bagged the trouble-making company affairs is noteworthy. Naveen Patnaik gets back mines and minerals but steel (where he incidentally has first-hand experience with Kalinga Steels founded by his late father) has slipped away -- but only just. Fellow Oriya Dilip Ray has got it now.
Let us look at some of the "fresh faces" who have come in. There is Mamta Banerjee with railways. She will no doubt be populistic -- you can expect announcement of more new trains, especially to West Bengal, even though there may be no money to lay new lines to run them. Banerjee also has a reputation for being a tough taskmaster -- translate that into surprise visits and a better work culture within Rail Bhavan. But she is the also the kind of maverick MP who will put in her papers at the first big accident that comes her way. Resignations and "owning moral responsibility" has not yet improved the pathetic state of the world's largest railway network.
That's something the former railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan can vouch for. Paswan has inherited the prestigious communications ministry. Why for heaven's sake has he been entrusted a ministry which is considered a beacon for economic reforms in India but which, unfortunately, is also the messiest one? It took the professional expertise of Soli Sorabjee, under Vajpayee's personal guidance, to draw out a package to put the telecom industry back on its feet. If Paswan's none-too-impressive past record as a minister is any indication, it is unlikely that things at the telecom ministry will improve. So why has he got it? One guess: The Bihar assembly election is only five months away and it costs a lot of money!
Ditto for Sharad Yadav who is the new Cabinet minister for civil aviation. Will we now have a civil aviation policy? Maybe, after the Bihar election.
Murasoli Maran is an old warhorse who is back at what looks to be the only sensible move to curb government expenditure: He has been given the dual responsibility of both commerce and industry which makes perfect sense. One can expect good export initiatives for Indian industry. Maran has got a good head on his shoulders -- except when he meets officials from Suzuki Motor Company who may again come to the Foreign Investment Promotion Board.
Apart from the Japanese company, the only trouble he ran into during his last tenure as part of the United Front government was with G V Ramakrishna of the Divestment Commission. Maran wanted GVR out, but Palaniappan Chidambaram prevailed and GVR stayed. It is interesting to note that minutes after the NDA was sworn in, GVR has put in his papers.
It is expected that former Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi, who has been granted a Cabinet berth with the portfolio of heavy industry and public sector enterprises, will wave the magic privatisation wand. Considering that more than half of public sector units in India are terminally sick, that is a lot of work to do. But then, Joshi must begin by attending office -- latest reports state that he and his fellow Shiv Sainik in the NDA Cabinet, Suresh Prabhu, have been told to boycott the ministry by an irate Bal Thackeray.
Another one who has a fairly good reputation for being an intelligent person is Arun Jaitley, the new information and broadcasting minister. Trust him to comprehend the intricacies of a new media policy, the emerging digital broadcasting world, private radio stations, and keeping the right profile of the government on Doordarshan's airwaves. But I am not willing to take a bet on whether Prasar Bharti will continue.
Of course, everybody is carping about how it is the prime minister's prerogative to appoint his team. Granted, but then, is this Union Cabinet his A-team? And what for heaven's sake can anybody make of the B and the C-team -- filled with ministers of state.
At last count, the PM has retained the portfolios of personnel and public grievances, agriculture, labour, coal, atomic energy, space and the newly created information technology. It must be a matter of only weeks before more new faces troop in to relieve him of these onerous responsibilities?
And then finally, and wisely, there is talk of some new-age ministries -- one for Non Resident Indians, another for infrastructure.
Governance be damned. Welcome to the party.
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