The formation of the Narendra Modi Government on Monday has by and large elicited a good response. There is wide appreciation that the new Prime Minister has tried to cut down the overall size of the council of ministers. From the typical 70-75-memebr ministry, Modi has a 45-strong council. This is to be welcomed. But the real concern is whether the new and inexperienced ministers are capable of handling the onerous tasks. The first-timers have been handed crucial departments impinging on the health of the economy. Even if their sincerity is not in doubt, they will still require mature guidance in handling intricate problems. For instance, the decision to club Power and Coal is well-conceived. But removing enormous roadblocks in stepping up power generation and coal production would not be easy. An idea of the huge problem that confronts the new minister can be had from the fact that despite the country sitting on the fifth largest reserves of coal, India is now the third largest importer of coal in the world. That sorry state has not developed overnight. Successive governments have exploited the public sector monopoly over extracting coal as a milch cow without bothering to renew and expand mining. Even as the demand for coal for feeding thermal power stations has risen enormously, the corresponding rise in coal production has lagged far behind, forcing costlier imports. Even the power sector is not without its own problems, with most of the green-field projects running well behind schedule. The point one is making is that there is a disappointment that the hoped-for induction of technocrats has not happened. Take the Railways, for instance. It was speculated that the well-known Metro Man E Sreedharan would be inducted in a junior ministerial position to assist the politician holding the charge of the Railways at the cabinet-level. This has not happened. Even if the bureaucracy can be reassured that it will be protected against baseless charges of arbitrary and wilful abuse of power it will take some doing to ensure that it delivers. After the arrest and imprisonment of several top bureaucrats, both serving and retired, in connection with various corruption scams, officialdom has virtually stopped taking decisions. The change in the conduct of the top order babus cannot happen overnight unless water-tight legal protection is assured to those acting purely out of good intentions and for larger public good. Maybe a mandatory provision in conduct of business rules can be made providing that all ministerial orders must be necessarily given in writing. Remember that then Telecom Minister A Raja’s Secretary, S Behuria, had had to spend months in jail because he was amiss in not getting his boss’s orders in writing. Another crucial step that the Modi Government can take to impart urgency to the task of providing good governance is to re-assert the primacy of the Prime Minister’s Office. For ten years, the Manmohan Singh PMO was turned into a mere post-office, sending files and papers from one department to the other without imparting any sense of direction and purpose to the matters in hand. Under Modi, the PMO should become the chief coordinator between various departments and a clearing house for sticky matters without, of course, stifling ministerial initiative and drive. The fact that the PM has not kept for himself any heavy-duty ministry raises hope that he would oversee all ministries with the sole objective of ensuring efficiency and purposefulness.
The PM is in a happy position insofar far as he is not beholden to anyone for his majority in Parliament. Even the allies know it full well that they have won because of Modi’s popularity. Therefore, the PM should assert his position to enforce discipline not only in the parliamentary party but in the government as well, something his predecessor was never in a position to do given that he was a mere creature of Sonia Gandhi. Also, some of the bad laws which have become a drag on growth must be amended and/or repealed early. The land acquisition law is the prime-most candidate for outright rewriting. Unless it is abrogated, further industrialisation would remain an impossibility. Modi should move fast in doing away with this law regardless of the criticism from the vested interests. Usually new governments enjoy a year or so of honeymoon period. Modi should push ahead with vital measures during that period before the Opposition regroups and becomes openly obstructionist.