|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
Whose bill is it anyway?
May 15, 2003
It is easy to commend -- as the Great Indian Middle Class has -- the Vajpayee government's move to limit the size of the council of ministers at the Centre and in the states to 10 per cent of the size of Parliament and the respective legislatures as a necessary step to curb wasteful expenditure.
And it is easy to condemn -- as the Marxists have -- the BJP-led regime's alteration of the original recommendation to limit the size of ministries from 10 per cent of the lower houses to 10 per cent of the upper and lower houses combined as a 'self-serving' move.
Certainly, there is a grain of truth in both arguments.
A Union minister, his secretary, and an additional secretary together cost the exchequer approximately Rs 24.5 lakh each month (India Today, February 2001). The states have 915 ministers in all -- 458 excess, if you employ the 10 per cent rule. Cutting out the excess flab, other staff, cars, houses, buildings, etc could result in substantial savings over a five-year period.
As the cliche goes, so many more schools could be built, roads laid, hospitals opened, and drinking water taps provided with that kind of money.
Moreover, a ceiling on ministry-size will prevent chief ministers like Sushilkumar Shinde (Maharashtra) from considering a Rs 70 crore annexe because he suddenly found that he had no room to accommodate 18 of his 69 ministers. Or Kalyan Singh (Uttar Pradesh) from accommodating every defecting MLA as minister to prevent the fall of his 93-member ministry. (Or spending Rs 55 crore on tea, biscuits and entertainment. Remember?)
The Marxists' grouse that the government's proposal does not conform to the spirit of the principle of limiting ministries' size, too, has some substance.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had suggested that the size of the Council of Ministers should not be more than 10 per cent of the total strength of the House of the People, the Lok Sabha at the Centre or the legislative assembly in the states.
This recommendation was pretty much in line with an earlier proposal in the 1970s by the Administrative Reforms Committee headed by Kengal Hanumanthaiah to limit the size of ministries to 10 per cent of the strength of the assembly in a unicameral state, 11 per cent in a bicameral state.
Ergo: the size of the Vajpayee team should not exceed 54, since the directly elected Lower House (Lok Sabha) has 542 members. But by including the 248-member Upper House (Rajya Sabha) -- and the other upper houses in the state legislatures -- in the ambit of the 10 per cent rule, the 78-member Vajpayee government has given its own size a respectable sheen.
Worse, says the CPI-M, forming a jumbo ministry has been made constitutionally acceptable, even necessary, especially in states which have a large upper house. Any wonder that the Congress has so overwhelmingly supported The Constitution (97th Amendment) Bill, although Shivraj Patil wants it to be referred to a parliamentary standing committee?
But, three key questions remain unanswered in this welter of agreement among our two major political parties for this piece of legislation.
# Is the restriction on the size of ministries really the crying need of the day?
The answer to the first question is a question: does anybody remember the size of the Vajpayee government coming under serious criticism in its four years at the helm? OK, our eyebrows do go up when we look at the telephone bills of ministers, but is there a correlation between ministry-size and its efficiency or cost-effectiveness?
Saving money -- or at least the pretence of saving money -- is a big middle-class fixation, and it is one that the BJP-led government is happily pandering to with the new bill, which deflects attention from the macro to the micro.
In the year India gained independence, the size of the Council of Ministers was 16. Fifty-six years on, when the number of states has grown manifold, when the population has nearly tripled, should the five-fold increase in its size to 78 really bother us when our problems have multiplied hundred-fold? (The size of the IAS has been commensurate: 957 in 1951; 4,943 in 2002.)
But the really big question is: does limiting the size of a ministry really save so much money? A 40 per cent increase of strength of the Union Cabinet between 1996-97 and 2000 only cost an additional Rs 24 lakh (Deccan Herald, April 26, 2003). What will a 50 per cent reduction in the size of the Union Council of Ministers really fetch the exchequer besides a front-page box news item?
Take, for instance, the S M Krishna team in Karnataka. It has 48 ministers. The state spends Rs 9.48 crore per annum on them. The size of the legislature is 300 (assembly 224, council 75), which means that as per the 10 per cent rule the size of the ministry cannot exceed 30.
India Today reports (May 5, 2003) that even if Karnataka were to sack 19 ministers, it would save a mere Rs 3.75 crore on a pro-rata basis. Similar pruning of the Maharashtra ministry would save Rs 4 crore, the Punjab ministry another Rs 4 crore, Andhra Pradesh a little short of Rs 5 crore.
All put together, the 30 states may save Rs 100 crore.
Does that kind of saving in a country whose GDP is Rs 25,00,000 crore make any sense? It can be argued that the more the ministers, the greater the bureaucracy and the greater the corruption. And vice versa. But does the Vajpayee regime have a plan to tear into that huge mountain called babudom?
Four years ago, there were 7.25 million central government employees. The combined salary bill of central and state government employees stood at Rs 75,000 crore, nearly half of the revenue receipts. In 1992, the Fifth Pay Commission suggested a 30 per cent cut in the number of central government employees over a ten-year period. Did we achieve that target? No.
What, then, is the point of chopping off the top of the tree if the bottom is still so heavy and rooted?
It is nobody's case that the prime minister or chief ministers should have the powers to have as big a ministry as they please, although there have been such occasions. Sikkim's Nar Bahadur Bhandari opted for a 16-member ministry, which was 50 per cent the size of the legislature. The size of Mayawati's current ministry is 136 in a house of 485 (28 per cent).
Moreover, LPG -- liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation -- have resulted in a sea change in our politics. Simple arithmetic tells us that as the government withdraws from several key areas, the size of government should correspondingly diminish. But that has not happened because ministerships continue to be seen (and used) as reward for loyalty, pacifiers for dissent, sops to special interest groups, and to meet regional, linguistic and caste aspirations.
It is the last of those reasons -- unglamourous as it is -- that will be under threat if the 97th Constitution Amendment Bill is passed in its present shape. And it could have some pretty dangerous repercussions.
Whether the chattering classes like it or not, the truth remains that coalition politics is here to stay. Which means that there will be always be some MPs, MLAs and MLCs that prime ministers and chief ministers have to accommodate to keep certain regions, certain religions, certain castes, certain language-speakers happy -- and to keep their own formations floating.
In electoral politics, a ministership is the jewel in the crown -- both for the electors and the elected.
It is ridiculous, of course, but that's the way realpolitik works. As L K Advani said in a Frontline interview shortly after Kalyan Singh had accommodated every defector to keep his government stable: "Every district wants a minister."
Can each district find a minister if the new rule comes into force?
India has 597 districts, and if each one had one Minister, there ought to be 597 ministers. But if the 97th Amendment Bill is passed, only a tenth of the 4,502 legislators (MLAs and MLCs) can become ministers. Strictly numerically speaking, nearly 150 districts or a quarter of India's districts can go unrepresented. Is that a good thing?
Certainly, the bill will ease the constant headache of ministerial aspirants on prime ministers and chief ministers.
"Look," they can say, "I would have loved to accommodate you, but the Constitution only allows so many ministers to be included." Or some such. But the real danger is that smaller regions, smaller languages, smaller communities and smaller parties will be shut out by more assertive, bigger political parties, who use them as a ladder to power.
In an era of dodgy coalition politics, is that likely to help or hurt the cause of that other Great Indian Middle Class desire -- stability?
And finally, the bill is no guarantee that leaders of government won't put on their thinking caps to circumvent it to accommodate more ministers. Officially, the size of S M Krishna's team in Karnataka is 48 (28 Cabinet ministers, 20 ministers of state). A minor expansion due soon is likely to take that number to 50.
Although Mr Krishna does 'not' head a coalition government, the number of MLAs and MLCs who enjoy 'ministerial status' is not 48 but 72 because of a different kind of pressure big victories bring. Reason: 24 mainly Congress MLAs have been named heads of loss-making state government boards and corporations.
Technically, the chairmen of the boards and corporations do not qualify as ministers, but enjoy all the perks and benefits conferred on ministers: a monthly salary of Rs 5,000 (Rs 4,000 for MoS); a sumptuary allowance of Rs 75,000 (Rs 50,000 for MoS); a furnished house or Rs 15,000 a month rent allowance for own house, or in lieu of it Rs 30,000 a month as rent; conveyance allowance equal to 300 litres of petrol a month; a daily allowance of Rs 650 while on tour within the state and Rs 1,000 while touring outside the state; a travel allowance of Rs 8 per kilometre; an official car with a driver; unlimited telephone, water and electricity expenses; and a daily allowance of Rs 800 when the legislature is in session.
If curbing the wastage of government money is truly the intent behind The Constitution (97th Amendment) Bill, how does it plan to tackle the innovative methods chief ministers employ -- and will keep employing -- to keep their flock happy in the era of coalition politics?Krishna Prasad