Narendra Modi’s ministers have to set new priorities and initiate processes to deliver on their spectacular mandate. HT looks at some of the key ministries and the tasks ahead of them.
A PMO-driven government, merged ministries, ‘minimum government’, 10-point priorities and a 100-day agenda — less than a week after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, a new set of buzzwords have captured the public sphere.
The new government has projected an image of a coherent, energetic and most importantly, different, team at work. It is too early to judge if this image will translate into reality, for India’s governance matrix is far more complex than the spin that any regime seeks to put out.
Three innovations of the Modi cabinet stand out, and carry risks and opportunities. PM Modi will closely monitor each ministry, and take the final call on ‘all policy issues’. This willingness to accept that the buck stops with him displays confidence, and worked well in the Gujarat context. The election mandate is for Modi’s ‘strong leadership’.
Narendra Modi (extreme left) with some of his cabinet ministers during his swearing-in ceremony as India's 15th Prime Minister at Rashtrapati Bhavan. (Ajay Aggarwal/(HT photo)
And he is entitled to assert authority. But the approach carries the risk of over-centralisation of authority and can possibly weaken the cabinet system. If the PMO seeks to micro-manage each ministry, it may well find itself stretched too thin.
Two, in many cases, one minister will lead a cluster of ministries. Finance and Corporate Affairs have been brought together and so have Power, Coal and Non-renewable energy; Transport becomes an umbrella portfolio.
This can increase efficiency. But it may well leave a minister over-burdened, and entirely dependent on bureaucrats. There is also a risk that the more powerful of the ministries will subsume the concerns of the weaker ones.
And three, the PM has a somewhat uneven cabinet. There are some whose grasp over policy issues is proven beyond doubt, for instance Arun Jaitley. But there are others who have either poor administrative track-record when they served in the previous NDA regime or at the state-level, or are inexperienced.
This will create inconsistency in performance. And in an increasingly inter-connected governance structure, if a few wheels are dysfunctional, the machine can halt.
For PM Modi himself, the core challenge is different. He has already displayed a willingness to take tough decisions, even if it invites criticism, for instance bringing in the TRAI amendment ordinance to pave the way for his Principal Secretary’s appointment.
But the urge to take speedy decisions, which may be driven by a desire to meet the high expectations, can often clash with institutional requirements and process. The mandate allows the Modi cabinet to act with a degree of freedom, but it must not be at the cost of constitutional and legal redlines.
Union Minister for Finance, Defence
The Indian economy grew by 4.7% in 2013-14 — the second successive year of sub-5% growth. This presents the new finance minister with the daunting challenge of cooling prices and pushing growth with the added anxiety of a possibly deficient monsoon.
Jaitley’s first budget (likely in the first week of July) will hold out cues on how the government plans to deliver on some of its electoral promises including jobs, price control and the speedier implementation of infrastructure projects. The BJP’s ace strategist has to guard against the tendency to give fiscal rectitude a pause.
The dual charge of defence might see a few interventions in the brief period that the ministry will remain with him. The biggest challenge for the defence ministry has been to get their budgets and plans rationalised and cleared from the finance ministry.
With Jaitley handling both charges, that might become smoother than ever before. But Prime Minister Modi has made it clear that there will be a new person in charge in a few weeks, so the defence ministry will have to wait for a fresh policy redraft until then.
Report by Gaurav Choudhury and Saikat Datta
Minister for Home
Since independence, the union home minister’s job has been considered the second-most important job in the cabinet after the Prime Minister. Singh will have to deal with several broken legacies left behind by his predecessors in North Block.
The first incumbent in the just-departed UPA government was Shivraj Patil, who was eased out after the 26/11 debacle. When P Chidambaram was moved in, the ministry witnessed a burst of activity, but faced several political failures.
Chidambaram failed to build political consensus on some of his pet projects, the biggest setback being the failure of the National Counter Terrorism Centre.
Singh’s role might be curtailed with the PMO driving the internal security charter through the newly-appointed National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval.
The modernisation of India’s police forces is a key project that will need Singh’s urgent attention. Singh has decades of administrative experience as a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a union minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Some of that will also come in handy as he tries to improve centre-state relations which had hit rock bottom under Sushil Kumar Shinde. With several states now under the BJP and a few more expected later this year, that should be easier for Singh as he settles into his new role.
Report By Saikat Datta
Minister for External Affairs
The dynamic between the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister will determine the future of foreign policy-making in the country. While Prime Ministers have, ever since the time of Nehru, had the final word on foreign policy, the power balance between the PM’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) tilted to one side completely under the UPA.
The MEA was subordinate, while all foreign policy decisions were being taken by the NSA. A former Leader of Opposition, Sushma Swaraj, walks into South Block in this backdrop. A senior official, however, said: “She is a political heavyweight... she will wrest back some power for the ministry.
The NSA, Ajit Doval, who comes from an intelligence and not an IFS background, may also reduce the PMO’s direct micro-management.” But this will be a PM Modi-driven government. The fact that Swaraj and the PM have not shared cordial relations may be a handicap.
The fact that she will also be the first woman in the Cabinet Committee on Security after Indira Gandhi is one more reason to watch her in the next five years.
Report by Prashant Jha
Ravi Shankar Prasad
Minister for Communication and Information Technology
Well-known for his debating skills on TV and in court rooms, the minister, soon after taking over, admitted, “this (Telecommunications) ministry has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.”
In his previous stint as the Minister of State in the Ministry of Law and Justice, Prasad had helped to prepare a bill seeking to amend the Representation of the People’s Act, in order to usher in accountability in politics. He will thus draw from his past experience to repair his present ministry’s mangled reputation, before seeking FDI.
The immediate issue before him is, however, to give credibility to the institutions that regulate this sector like Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Heightened corporate rivalry and the inability of the sector to bridge the digital divide and rural connectivity with broadband is also a concern that needs to be addressed.
Manufacturing in information technology and telecommunication has been spoken about for more than a decade. The lack of innovations in this sector has made India a service sector in IT. For this to change, Prasad would need other ministries to support this cause.
Report by M Rajendran
Minister for Environment
Javadekar will have to come up with a developmental model that strikes a balance between the environment and growth. Almost every mining or industrial zone in India is regarded as a health hazard. Javadekar will have to lift the veil of secrecy over environment norms.
A more inclusive and transparent approval system that penalises green defaulters is needed. Indian wildlife has suffered because of bureaucratic apathy; only a third of the tiger reserves have a habitat that is good enough to support the resident big cat population.
Half of the posts of forest guards are lying vacant. Poachers have used sophisticated weapons to kill animals especially rhinos in Kaziranga in Assam. Clearly, Javadekar needs to push for an ‘environment first’ policy.
Report by Chetan Chauhan
Minister for Minority Affairs
The only Muslim face in the cabinet, Heptullah can leave an enduring legacy and permanently change the equation between Muslims, India’s largest minority, and the BJP if she succeeds in bringing rapid development to a community shown to be at the bottom of nearly all socio-economic indicators.
Heptullah’s key challenge is to ensure that benefits from a raft of schemes emanating from the Sachar committee recommendations and rolled out by the previous government reach minorities.The availability of the popular scholarship scheme — from pre-matric to PhD level — outstripped demand during the UPA years.
Heptullah has to ensure that she gets enough funds to make it demand-based, rather than supply-based. She would do well to form an experts’ panel to redesign such schemes.
Report by Zia Haq
Minister of State (Independent Charge), Commerce and Industry
India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) policy is due for an overhaul. A medium-term solution would require political urgency to dismantle the steeple chase that is our FDI policy today.
As the nodal minister of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), Sitharaman’s first task would be to pilot a new FDI policy to allow overseas investors to deploy funds in high growth sectors. Sitharaman, has already said that there were no plans to ease foreign investment norms in multi-brand retail.
There are signs that the government will allow FDI in e-commerce retail and high-speed trains and rail cargo passageways, which could pave the way for overseas investors to pick up equity in projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai dedicated rail freight corridor.
Fresh and urgent policy pronouncements will, at the very least, help soothe frayed nerves of investors. Sitharaman will have to present a new foreign trade policy and oversee measures to boost exports.
Report by Gaurav Choudhury