The nation is agog. Rather, the media is agog. The reason: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to reshuffle his ministry. Newspapers are giving it prime space, television channels are debating the pros and cons, etc. But, seriously, does a reshuffle matter? What difference does it make to anything, least of all to the quality of governance?
In an increasingly over-centralised system of decision-making, ministers have increasingly become part of official paraphernalia – or, to put it more simply, functionally ornamental. Try to recall a few ministries and the names of the individuals who head them. Other than a handful of names you would need to search Google for the rest.
Over the last seven years, the BJP government, led by Narendra Modi, has not exactly covered itself with glory on the issue of governance. In fact, mis-governance has become the norm. Take the latest mess in the way the government dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.
An unprecedented nationwide shutdown was announced in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, giving just four hours for people to prepare themselves. It hardly looked like a decision taken after confabulating with the council of ministers. It was more like an impulsive off-the-cuff call taken by the prime minister.
Among other things, the adverse impact it had on millions of migrant workers across the nation besides the chaos and confusion was nightmarish, to say the least.
Also read: All talk, no vaccine, poor optics: The three COVID mistakes of Modi govt
All through the pandemic so far, including during the second wave, the Modi government has come out looking woefully short of ideas and the ability to put forth a simple, workable plan of action. And, mind you, at least 57 ministers were sworn in after the 2019 victory. Even if it was the immediate responsibility of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, himself an allopathic doctor, he hardly ever looked in control and more often than not, was overshadowed by the prime minister.
To top it, Harsh Vardhan advocated alternative medicines and yoga as a way to treat Covid-19. Admittedly, there are several people who rely on these for their well-being. But the criticism was over Vardhan’s recommendation without clinical backing. The Indian Medical Association (IMA), pointing to his views, said they were based on anecdotal evidence and individual subjective experiences.
The Modi government stumbled on its assessment of the pandemic too. There appeared to be no considered decision from within his council of ministers to deal with it. The government prematurely declared victory over the pandemic and did not do anything to augment vaccine supplies last year when countries like the United States were already booking them in advance. When the second wave burst upon the scene the government was in complete disarray, unable to figure out what to do.
Also read: Modi’s honeymoon is over; to save his edifice, he needs to act fast
In the process, thousands died for want of oxygen and hospital beds with the worst hit being the capital region, Delhi.
The government has come up short on its vaccine policy too. After waking up late to order stocks from the manufacturers – Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, the programme has moved in fits and start, with no consistent roadmap on ensuring total vaccination for all. Again, these are issues of governance and the retinue of ministers led by Prime Minister Modi has fallen way below expectations.
From a centralised procurement process of Covid-related equipment, including vaccines, the government abruptly decentralised it leaving states in a lurch. Once this too proved a failure as a direct buy from manufacturers could not happen, the government again reversed the policy back to a centralised procurement.
During this back and forth, private players were allowed to buy vaccines (to the extent of 25 per cent) directly and charge for it. The dual pricing too has found to be wanting with people now crowding government vaccination centres where supplies are free but limited. The entire flip-flop on vaccine policy is expected to considerably slow down the vaccination rates thereby raising the chances of a virulent Covid third wave with its attendant dangers.
The manner in which the government has dealt with the farmers’ agitation with no worthwhile inputs from Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar again betrays a lack of talent to sort out a pressing crisis. It has become a given that unless a direction comes from the PMO, nothing will be done by any ministry on its own.
Earlier, in the first term of the Modi government, the dramatic move to demonetize currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 indicated the excessive reliance on a few individuals to take decisions of such magnitude. It was widely reported at the time that the move was done in utmost secrecy. The council of ministers may as well have been non-existent.
The manner in which GST was implemented showed a lack of preparedness within the government. The confusion and the lack of clarity in its implementation continues to this day. In the weeks following the implementation, the everyday clarification and change of rules regarding GST almost turned into a standing joke.
Also read: Demonetisation and GST: A tale of two economic ‘mis’adventures
Among the most controversial has been the Modi government’s alteration in the deal to buy the Rafale fighter aircraft from France. The Hindu newspaper reported, in an investigation, that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was directly involved in negotiations with the French counterparts. The then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was reportedly cut out of the decision-making. For instance, in February 2015 Parrikar’s ministry termed the deal as “effectively dead”. Just two months later, Modi during a trip to France announced the altered deal, Parrikar’s verdict notwithstanding.
Ministry formation, which Constitutionally is the prerogative of the prime minister, has increasingly come to represent some sort of gratitude for “favours done”. In most cases, it is not about an individual having an expertise in a particular subject or one with past experience in the portfolio that matters.
For example, take a couple of names doing the rounds, currently, for a berth in Modi’s ministry — Jyotiraditya Scindia and Assam’s former chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. If Scindia does find a place in the ministry, it would be thanksgiving for his role in toppling the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and his defection to the BJP. In the case of Sonowal, it would be to assuage him after his shock replacement as Assam chief minister by Himanta Biswa Sharma. Both choices would be entirely political. Their administrative capabilities could well be incidental.
One can argue that the process of ministry formation started to degenerate way before the advent of the Modi government in 2014. But what is equally true is that the trend has only worsened since the current dispensation came to power seven years ago. A valid question that a citizen can ask is: whether cabinet reshuffles make any difference to the individual on the street.