Prime minister Narendra Modi’s ministerial mergers, in keeping with his motto of minimum-government-maximum-governance, have delivered in many ways and having relatively young ministers imparted a rare dynamism in government functioning. But there was always the feeling that the ministers were very stretched, and possibly the government was facing a paucity of talent. Merging the power ministry with coal was, for instance, a good idea given their synergy and the fact that the shortage of power was mostly correlated with the shortage of coal production. But how was the clubbing of finance with defence to be justified other than by saying Arun Jaitley had the necessary capability of doing justice to more than one ministry? Nor did combining law with telecom make sense, even if Ravi Shankar Prasad is a competent minister.
Indeed, in some obvious cases where there was a synergy, the ministries were not merged under a single minister with various deputies looking after individual departments. Agriculture is a good example since water resources is handled by one minister, food and public distribution by another, and fertilizers by a third and there is then the agriculture minister himself. Given how the fate of India’s agriculture depends on how quickly it is modernised, all departments need to be working in sync in order to take a holistic look at the sector’s needs. To take one example, of food subsidies, while the food ministry may want to keep the subsidy regime going—though after correcting it for obvious leakages—the agriculture ministry’s interests lie in curbing subsidies and replacing them with greater levels of public investments.
To a certain extent, as in previous governments, portfolios need to be expanded to create enough jobs for senior politicians, but while some of the ministerial mergers of prime minister Modi make sense, others don’t. It is in this context that the weekend’s Cabinet expansion needs to be viewed. For one, with the government settled in, and Modi, having got good measure of how various ministers have performed, is in a better position to expand his Cabinet and council of ministers. And while it is still not certain as to whether Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar will be the country’s new defence minister, there is no doubt the ministry is too important to have a part-time chief, no matter how good a job Jaitley may have done in ensuring, for instance, vital defence production contracts got cleared—indeed, when he took over as defence minister,
Jaitley publicly announced that this was just a temporary charge. Even within the finance ministry, more so since the Planning Commission has been done away with, there is a need for another minister of state. Hopefully, Sunday’s Cabinet expansion will take care of this as well as settle the question of a talent shortage within the government.