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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 25, June 6, 2009

The Fine Art of Government Formation

Saturday 6 June 2009, by Sandeep Shastri


The formation of the Union Council of Ministers is an exercise in astute political gymnastics. The Congress President, the Prime Minister and their close confidants have demonstrated their shrewd political skills in being able to stitch together a Union Council of Ministers which is a ‘please-all‘ Ministry. Allies have been accommodated, interests within the party have been appeased, regional needs have been acknowledged and youth has been accorded its due place. There are murmurs of some States having a larger than due representation and some other States being ignored in spite of those being politically important. Every Ministry formation exercise will surely leave a few dissatisfied elements and disgruntled aspirants. At the outset, one aberration stares us in the face: Srikant Jena, who was a Union Cabinet Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Chandra Shekar Government, has now been made a Minister of State, that too without independent charge! This explains why he is upset and has not yet assumed charge even though he was sworn in as a Minister.

Ministry-making is not merely about distributing the spoils of office. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often asserted, it is about governance and performance. If one were to look at the Ministry formation and portfolio distribution, we notice that a few more precautions could have been taken by the leadership to prevent an apparent skew in the work distribution.

Given the size of the Ministry—79 Ministers (there is still scope for adding at least two more as the Constitution mandates that the size of the Ministry should not be more than 15 per cent of the strength of the Lower House!), there was ample opportunity to make sure that every Ministry had sufficient number of Ministers at different levels. We now have five Ministries where there are only Cabinet Ministers with no one to assist them. These include important Ministries like Law, Non-Renewable Energy, Mines, Food Processing and Overseas Indian Affairs. It might have been useful for the Prime Minister to consider appointing a junior Minister in each of these Ministries to ensure that the Cabinet Ministers had support in their respective Ministries.

Given the fact that we have seven Ministers of State with independent charge, they are the only Ministers in their respective Ministries as we do not have Deputy Ministers in this government to assist the Ministers of State with independent charge. It would be difficult to place a Minister of State under a Minister of State with independent charge! As a result all these seven Ministries become single-Minister Ministries.

IT is interesting that the Ministry of Panchayat Raj and Rural Development has three Ministers of State. No other Ministry has this unique distinction. Two of these Ministers of State hail from parties within the UPA other than the Congress. Important Ministries which could have done with two Ministers of State have just one Minister of State. Some of these include Defence, Agriculture, Commerce, Human Resource Develop-ment, Power, Petroleum, Youth Affairs and Sports.

Pressures from allies are clearly apparent. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Health and Family Welfare have two Ministers of State each, both being from parties other than the Congress within the UPA. Most Ministers of State who do not belong to the Congress have been attached to Cabinet Ministers hailing from the Congress. On the other hand, in most Ministries managed by Cabinet Ministers who do not hail from the Congress, prominent and articulate Congress leaders have been made Ministers of State.

Ministry-making has always been an exercise involving intricate calculations and innumerable rounds of negotiations. This is especially true if it were to be a government formation involving an alliance. The UPA seems to have done a reasonably good job of Ministry formation. A more balanced distribution of the Minister of State portfolios would address some of the issues raised above. Maybe at the time of the next reshuffle! n
Dr Shastri is Pro Vice-Chancellor, Jain University and a leading political analyst.

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