Given how many of the ministerial mergers—finance and defence, telecom and law—never made sense, prime minister Narendra Modi has done well to expand his cabinet and do away with the forced mergers made in the name of minimum-government-maximum-governance. The flipside of the ministerial M&As, of course, as FE has advocated earlier, the prime minister missed an opportunity in merging four ministries that look after agriculture—water resources, fertiliser, food and public distribution and agriculture itself—into one mega-ministry with a single agenda of taking India’s agriculture into the 21st century. The weekend’s cabinet expansion, of course, is linked to the BJP’s political ambitions, so there are 7 ministers from Bihar (including the BJP allies like Ram Vilas Paswan) and 12 from Uttar Pradesh which will go to polls in the next 2-3 years. The size of the Cabinet has got many saying that, at 66, it is not much smaller than the UPA’s 78—and there could be a few more additions if the sulking Shiv Sena comes along after Modi refused to submit to its blackmail. While a compact Cabinet would obviously be easier to manage, the important thing is whether a government is agile or hamstrung. So far, Modi’s Cabinet has proved to be remarkably agile and matters have got cleared quite fast—indeed, decisions such as the opening up of the coal sector were hanging fire in the UPA for years without a resolution.
Of all the ministers inducted, Suresh Prabhu’s case has been the most interesting, and not just due to the fact that his party wasn’t too keen to have him as a minister and he had to join the BJP in order to find a place in the Cabinet. Prabhu was one of the dynamic ministers in the Vajpayee government and it is to his credit that the concept of competition in the electricity sector was brought in through the Electricity Act of 2003—the Act itself was written by Gajendra Haldea who is now an infrastructure advisor to the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments. The choice of Railways for Prabhu may seem natural given how its modernisation—and induction of both FDI and competition in it—is critical to the Modi scheme of things, but it is nonetheless curious. For one, while Prabhu is in charge of Railways, you have a committee headed by Bibek Debroy which is supposed to suggest ways to restructure the Railway Board—the heart of the Railways functioning—as well as resource mobilisation for major railway projects. Prabhu himself heads a committee on integrated development of the power and coal sector—Piyush Goyal is the minister here. It doesn’t help that Prabhu is also the Sherpa for the G-20 and was, till recently, supposed to be in the reckoning for the head of the new Reforms Commission. Whether such multiple responsibilities will be a source of weakness or a source of strength for the government is to be seen. Apart from the obvious control of the PMO, the fact that Arun Jaitley is sort of an economics minister with most economic decisions referred to him first helps smoothen matters—getting a full-time deputy in Jayant Sinha instead of a part-timer in Nirmala Sitharaman who had her hands full in commerce and industry is also some help for Jaitley.