The 7 from 78 who can make a difference

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: Jun 1 2009, 07:15am hrs
Manmohan Singh
We now know UPA II team of ministers. There are some issues we shouldnt be nave about. If 81 ministers are permitted by law, there will be 81, or close to that number. Downsizing wont occur. Consequently, there wont be rationalisation either. Dont ask why we need a steel ministry or why industry needs three different ministriesheavy industry, industry and food processing (actually four, with micro, small & medium enterprises). At least, rural development has effectively been clubbed with Panchayati Raj and there may even be synergy between mines and DONER (North-East). Allied portfolios were frozen. Whats new are Congress portfolios. In the DMK case, a lot was made about non-performance in UPA I and the new team has been told to perform or perish. Thats fine. But does one have to wait for a five-year term to be over before punishing non-performance Within Congress fold, why were Arjun Singh, Shivraj Patil, HR Bharadwaj and Sisram Ola tolerated in UPA-I and is Saifuddin Sozs exit linked to efficiency or political compulsions

Efficiency arguments are difficult to digest if allocations are based on regional and caste representations. Like reservations or quotas, these work against meritocracy. Its no different for gerontocracy.

Average age of Cabinet (not entire council of Ministers) has dropped from 66 to 63 and with young faces included, much is being made of energy versus experience balancing act. Young bring energy, old bring experience. Lets not go overboard on this, Agatha Sangma notwithstanding. The young are Ministers of State (MoS) and what such Ministers can achieve is a function of the Cabinet Minister concerned. Insecurity rarely allows Cabinet Ministers to delegate. The list of MoS with independent charge isnt quite young. With all these warts, the programming exercise (any programming is subject to constraints) that has been performed is remarkable. There has been a good match with what is known about individual strengths and competencies, especially for Congress. After all, Kapil Sibal had a conflict of interest in law. The only real surprise is commerce & industry, with Kamal Naths exit and Anand Sharmas entry. The entry probably means PM and PMO would like to be a bit more involved with WTO and trade policy negotiations (including bilateral ones like ASEAN). That same may be true of multilateral negotiations in environment & forests.

The point is one can detect rationale and method and allocations arent madness. Emphasis is on social sectors. If Kapil Sibal cannot drive human resources and liberalise education (also from control raj unleashed by Arjun Singh), who will Ghulam Nabi Azad should be able to interpret health & family welfare as more than a smoking and AIIMS issue. CP Joshi knows rural development well, from his experience in Rajasthan. Splice it with Panchayati Raj, too bad agriculture couldnt stay with Congress. With road programme stagnating and focus on infrastructure, Kamal Nath should be able to kick-start it. Veerappa Moily has been talking about law reform in his earlier incarnation, let him implement it. Home, finance, defence, external affairs and railways were known. Information & broadcasting should be Ambika Sonis forte. Let there be continuity in power, urban development and petroleum & natural Gas. Not much point touching MS Gill before Commonwealth Games. With garments in recession and export interests in Tamil Nadu, Dayanidhi Maran should be asked to resolve that problem. Salman Khursheed in Minority Affairs is a caricature. But he has corporate affairs too and a background in law to push corporate governance and the somnolent Competition Commission of India.

Even Farooq Abdullah seems to have found a fit. There is matching for younger ministers too, Ajay Maken and Shashi Tharoor included. There are ministries one may continue to wonder aboutheavy industries & public enterprises, steel and even labour & employment. Usually, portfolio allocation gives the impression of being ad hoc and arbitrary. Subject to constraints, this one is different. Understandably, Congress has more portfolios and more meaningful ones. In UPA I, non-performance was blamed on allies. (HRD and Power are counter-examples.) That escape clause no longer exists. In no government since 1991 have all Ministers delivered. Five out of 81 can make all the difference, though note the message has been perform or perish, not reform or perish. In my list of possible 7 from UPA-II, and ignoring high profile ministries like home, defence, finance or MEA, I will pick Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath, Salman Khursheed, Dayanidhi Maran, CP Joshi, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappa Moilly. Thats an impressive list to start off with and one is more confident about UPA II than UPA I. However, one shouldnt go overboard. These are early days yet. Lets wait for the 100-day plans to judge who will run the sprint and who will run the marathon.

The author is a noted economist