They say small is beautiful. But size may be an overrated virtue, especially in politics.
Over 25 months after he started out with the smallest cabinet in 16 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted 19 ministers into his team on Tuesday to give a clutch of election-bound states more representation in the council of ministers. He also dropped five ministers.
By the end of the exercise, Modi’s new council of ministers became 78-member strong – with 28 cabinet ministers, 12 ministers of state with independent charge, and 38 ministers of state. Nevertheless, Team Modi is still within the legal bar which rules that the council of ministers cannot have more than 15 per cent of the Lok Sabha’s strength.
A day ago, Modi had told reporters that the expansion was necessary to “operationalise the priority areas identified in this year’s budget”, without elaborating on how more junior ministers can ensure efficiency.
But the expansion was in sharp contrast to Modi’s pledge in May 2014 to start implementing his slogan – Minimum Government, Maximum Governance – with his team. The Prime Minister’s Office had then indicated that it was not just a slogan, but Modi’s guiding principle in making his new team. “For the first time, he adopted the guiding principle of ‘Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’ and also rationalisation with a commitment to bring about a change in work culture and style of governance,” it had announced.
The government’s spin doctors then went on to stress how Modi had consciously kept his team lean, a signal that governance – not politics – would be his top priority.
Back in 2014, Modi’s 45-member council of ministers had come as a surprise to many, particularly when his predecessors – Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee – had succumbed to the temptation of appointing a jumbo cabinet for the larger part of their tenures. With a 282-seat majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi did not have to succumb to the compulsions of coalition politics.
As far as this strategy was concerned, Modi did not intend to stop with his team. A statement from his office went on to declare that the Prime Minister is “eventually aiming at smart governance where the top layers of government will be downsized”.
That was Modi, an ‘outsider’ to Delhi’s power circles.
Two years down the line, ‘insider’ Modi no longer talks of downsizing cabinet representation.
Besides, a jumbo cabinet has its own set of advantages. A lean cabinet did not give Modi the elbow room required to send a political message to poll-bound states. Uttarakhand was without representation, something that became a talking point in the run-up to the state polls.
But now, Uttarakhand has a Dalit face in the cabinet.
Also, Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – was too big to have just 13 ministerial portfolios. Modi dropped one minister from the state, but compensated by inducting three more from the OBC, Dalit and Brahmin communities. These voter bases hold the key to the BJP’s success in the assembly election next year.
The Prime Minister also inducted three more ministers from Gujarat into the cabinet, sending a message that the western state was still very much on his mind.