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A few good men

A list of five efficient ministers from the past and the reasons why they should be looked up to. The list spans four decades and three political parties. Ramachandra Guha gives details.

india Updated: Jun 15, 2009 22:29 IST

We now have a fresh set of 79 ministers in the central government. How many ministers, of different ranks, have we had since Independence? By my calculations, a new Cabinet and Prime Minister have been sworn in on 20 different occasions. However, earlier mantrimandals were less numerous — so, taking an average of 50 per time, we have had at least a thousand individuals who, at various times, have occupied various ministerial posts in the central government.

Now, a more difficult question — how many of these ministers have contributed significantly to the welfare of the Indian people? From the first Cabinet I can certainly single out two. There was the Home Minister and Minister of States, Vallabhbhai Patel, whose ministries were faced with a problem no new nation had been confronted with before — or will be since. This was to bring roughly 500 princes and their chiefdoms into the Indian Union. Some of these rulers were high-minded, others dissolute — all, however, were confirmed egomaniacs. It fell to Patel and his sterling assistant, VP Menon, to deal with them one-by-one, to cajole, persuade and bribe them into joining up with India. With a few princes these methods would not work — so they had to be coerced instead. Eventually, after two years of unceasing toil and struggle, Patel and his officials handed over to their compatriots a united and integrated India.

Patel was an excellent Home Minister in other respects — in taming the extremists of left and right, for example, and in laying the foundations of an all-India civil service. The other truly remarkable member of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet was his Law Minister, BR Ambedkar. It fell to this lifelong opponent of the Congress to take successive drafts of the Constitution through an Assembly dominated by Congressmen. He did the task superbly — as the 13 bulky volumes of the Constituent Assembly’s proceedings testify. Like Patel, Ambedkar had other strings to his bow — thus it was he who supervised the drafting of a new Hindu Code, which, for the first time, allowed Hindu (and Sikh and Jain) women the right to choose their own marriage partners, the right to own a share of their parents’ property, and the freedom to marry outside one’s caste and to divorce a brutal or unfaithful husband.

Patel died in December 1950; Ambedkar left the Cabinet a year later. Through the 1950s, while Nehru himself led the nation wisely and well — for the most part — none of his colleagues, in retrospect, deserve the label ‘outstanding’. (Some were merely capable, others not even that).

The next Minister who should command our grateful attention is YB Chavan, who took over as the Defence Minister after the Indian Army was comprehensively routed by the Chinese in the winter of 1962. Chavan stopped his predecessor’s practice of playing favourites with Generals — as importantly, he abandoned his predecessor’s obsessive hatred of the West by stocking up on the latest arms from France, the UK, and the US. By the time the next war came, against Pakistan in 1965, the Indian Army was much better equipped to fight it. For their new Defence Minister had both restored the Army’s morale and provided them with up-to-date equipment.

The wars of 1962 and 1965 made a deep dent into India’s foreign exchange reserves. The dent was made deeper by the massive imports of wheat necessitated by successive failures of the monsoon. To safeguard its political independence, India had somehow to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. Fortunately, this was recognised by Nehru’s successor as Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who, on assuming office, at once transferred one of his best ministers from the then prestigious Steel portfolio to the then obscure Agriculture Ministry. This was C Subramaniam. Himself from farming stock, Subramaniam set about reorganising the system of agricultural research in the country. The scientists were ready and willing — working with and under their minister, they adapted to Indian conditions, varieties of high-yielding wheat originally developed by American scientists for Mexico. Within a few years the research had begun to show results. By the early 1970s, India was no longer living a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence.

My last exemplar is Madhu Dandavate, who was Railway Minister during the Janata Government of 1977-79. A trained physicist, Dandavate combined the pragmatism of the scientist with the empathy for the poor of the socialist tradition to which he belonged. As minister, he initiated the computerisation of railway reservation and oversaw the replacement of worn-out stock. But his most radical innovation was to put three inches of foam on the millions of second and third class berths that were then composed only of cold, hard wood. He thus redeemed his own promise to ‘elevate the second class without degrading the first class’.

Perhaps in a later column I will offer candidates for a list of ‘worst ever cabinet ministers’. However, with a new Government finding its feet, one is forbidden from being cynical. My list of five good ministers spans four decades and three political parties. (Any biases are unconscious, I just noticed that three were Maharashtrians.) The goodness of their policies collectively benefited hundreds of millions of Indians. They should set a benchmark by which we can assess the policies of our new set of ministers. To the history-minded among them, I provide this incentive — if you run your ministries as well as Subramaniam and Dandavate ran theirs, 30 and 40 years later you may still be admiringly written about in the major newspapers of the land.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi