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A leaner Cabinet for the PM
October 04, 2005
A Cabinet reshuffle appears to be on the cards. It has been awaited for long. Even since Shibu Soren had to quit the Cabinet as coal minister, there have been talks of an imminent change in Manmohan Singh's council of ministers.
That was in July 2004. Since then, more Cabinet berths have fallen vacant. Sunil Dutt passed away, and Jagdish Tytler quit the ministry in the wake of the controversy over his involvement in the anti-Sikh riots that took place in Delhi in 1984.
So, Manmohan Singh, if and when he chooses to reshuffle the Cabinet, can easily induct three new ministers. In fact, he could expand his council of ministers by a larger number. A fact not easily recognised is that Singh has been running a relatively lean government.
It is definitely leaner than the government of his immediate predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had 77 ministers. With only 63 ministerial colleagues now, Manmohan Singh can easily take in 15 more ministers, thanks to the new law that allows the size of the Union ministry to go up to 10 per cent of the combined strength of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
Within the government, however, there is a view that Singh may not need to expand the size of his Cabinet. For instance, does he really need a Cabinet level minister for sports? Or, for that matter, does he have to get somebody to head the ministry for Non-Resident Indian affairs?
The sports ministry could easily be attached to the ministry of culture or youth affairs, and the ministers of state in charge of those ministries could be asked to oversee it in addition to their existing responsibilities.
And there is ample justification for abolishing the ministry for NRI affairs, so that there is no need for a new minister.
In fact, the prime minister could make his Cabinet leaner and compact by creating an omnibus ministry for energy. With the growing importance of energy, it is necessary for someone in the Cabinet to take a holistic view of the various energy-related issues, currently being looked after by different ministries and departments.
The ministries of coal and power (since the resignation of Shibu Soren, the coal ministry is being looked after by the prime minister himself and the power minister has done precious little to justify the need for retaining its independent Cabinet-level identity) could be easily merged with the ministry for petroleum and natural gas.
If need be, Singh could appoint a minister of state for coal and power. Similarly, the various ministries looking after different transport sectors could be brought under one umbrella of a transport ministry. Thus, the ministries for railways, roads and civil aviation could be looked after by one Cabinet-level minister.
True, this might mean greater political management, as coalition partners will always like to have increased representation at the Cabinet level and some compromises may have to be made.
But since Singh started off with a lean ministry, he could actually take the next step forward and merge the different ministerial wings of the infrastructure sector under two broad heads -- energy and transport.
This will reduce the size of his Cabinet, ensure better economic administration and help achieve the goals of ushering in greater investment in these two sectors and improving the efficiency levels.
There is yet another view in some sections of the government. Since Singh has managed to obviate the need for filling up the various ministerial vacancies for almost about a year, he could as well insist on a full-scale restructuring of the ministries aimed at ensuring better economic administration. And if that is not possible, he should only settle for the status quo.
Governance, after all, is not always a function of an efficient minister at the helm. As the railways ministry has shown in the past six months, an absentee minister has actually meant a dramatic turnaround in the efficiency and performance of the Indian Railways.
The same argument could be used by Singh to push for fundamental changes in the ministries or settle for the continuation of the status quo. That way, his council of ministers will continue to stay as lean as they were a year ago.