Will Modi achieve ‘minimum government, maximum governance?’

Will Modi achieve ‘minimum government, maximum governance?’

India’s new Prime Minister Modi seeks to cut the federal government and make it more efficient. Yet, there are significant challenges to overcome before he can improve the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the executive.

After assuming office as the 15th Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in line with his campaign mantra of ‘Minimum Government Maximum Governance,’ cut the size of the federal government. He reduced the number of ministers, slashed cabinet committees and abolished inter-ministerial groups.

The Prime Minister’s Office under Modi – packed with trusted bureaucrats – is once again set to become a strong institution in the scheme of governance. The expectation is that Modi would change the lethargic work culture in New Delhi.

Downsizing the Leviathan

Emboldened by a decisive verdict in his favour, Prime Minister Modi reduced the number of ministers and merged a total of 17 ministries into seven. Besides bringing the Corporate Affairs Ministry under Finance, illogical divisions such as the ones between urban housing and urban development, foreign affairs, and overseas Indian affairs were merged.

In the same stretch, Modi also abolished thirty inter-ministerial groups to give more autonomy to ministries and departments, as well as to pin responsibility and accountability. Furthermore, he removed many adjunct cabinet committees such as one on WTO, and merged them with larger ones such as the cabinet committee on economic affairs. These measures are expected to expedite decision-making and provide faster clearances.

The hope is that the role of the Soviet-style planning commission, a technocratic institution that charts perspective road maps and allots money to states, could be changed into a think tank, or could even be abolished entirely.

Incomplete integration but creative fusion

However, Prime Minister Modi appears to have stopped short of completing the integration of ministries due to political compulsions and sectoral necessities. Transport for example was integrated only in part. While shipping and road transport were brought under one minister, railways and civil aviation are still kept as separate ministries. Likewise, an integrated energy ministry is still absent.

Interesting, however, is how Modi has given portfolios to junior ministers. While agriculture and food processing have been retained as separate ministries, a junior minister with a doctorate in agriculture has been appointed for both the ministries. The deputy foreign affairs minister, who was the former Army Chief, has been given independent charge of developing the Northeast, a vital region in realizing India’s strategic objectives in East Asia.

Prime Ministerial government with a reinvigorated steel frame

After twenty-five years, New Delhi will witness enormous power and influence vested in the Prime Minister’s office. Within a week of assuming office, Modi met the secretaries of different ministries without their ministers. He is reported to have assured the bureaucracy of his strong backing on their decisions and exhorted them to act without fear.

He also sent out a strong signal with his ten point agenda that decision paralysis is no longer acceptable. To this effect, the country’s top bureaucrat, the Cabinet Secretary, had sent a directive to all ministries to reduce decision-making layers to four and remove all rules that impede decision-making. Besides, they have been urged to resolve turf disputes as early as possible. Modi could also strip the discretion enjoyed by the ministers in selection of their own secretaries.

With huge expectations on him from the voters, industrialists, investors, and stakeholders beyond borders, Modi knows he has to deliver. Even an average performance would be considered a failure.

Modi has chosen to accommodate his friends and rivals in the Cabinet, but at the same time has given himself enormous authority by keeping ‘all important policy issues’ under his office. The PMO might not just be the driving force behind policies across ministries, but a super cabinet in itself.

Restructuring government is a key to improving governance, yet the end can be realized only if three fundamentals are taken care of: capacity, autonomy, and openness. Modi’s model has a lot of ground to cover on all the three.

About Author

Sundar Nathan

Sundar is currently a contributing analyst for IHS. Prior to that, Sundar was a project member at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He also worked at the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy where he helped launch a comprehensive study of urban governance in India. He has a Masters in International Public Policy from University College London.