In a break from the past, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has started circulating the agenda for the cabinet just hours ahead of a meeting, giving ministers hardly any preparation time.
The objective is to plug leaks, expedite decision-making and avoid dissent on important policy issues, government sources said.
But it has caused some heartburn among a section of ministers, who feel left out of the policy-making process. “We hardly get time to study notes from outside our ministry. The result is that only one or two ministers are ‘active’ participants in whatever debate takes place,” one cabinet minister told HT on condition of anonymity.
Since the Narendra Modi government took office, the cabinet secretariat has started distributing the cabinet agenda late in the evening if a meeting is scheduled for the next morning or in the afternoon for an evening meeting. This is a marked departure from the UPA era when the agenda would be released 24 to 48 hours in advance. As a result, cabinet meetings witnessed heated debates with many ministers chipping in with ideas.
That practice, however, delayed important policy decisions since many ministers – including those from the Congress’ allies – objected to proposals. These issues would then be referred to groups of ministers (GoMs) and empowered GoMs – there were more than 70 of these at one point of time — and many would never again see the light of day. One of Modi’s first actions as PM was to abolish GoMs and EGoMs to accelerate decision-making.
The delayed distribution of cabinet agenda has also reignited the debate on the centralisation of powers in the PMO.
A senior minister claimed the PMO’s intention was only to prevent “leaks” to the media and to “vested interests” before a decision is taken. The argument, however, didn’t find many takers with many ministers saying a “leak” just triggers a public debate on an issue before a decision is taken.
“Even during Modi’s stint in Gujarat (as CM), there were times when his cabinet colleagues got the agenda when they arrived at the meeting and got 30-45 minutes to study it before Modi joined them,” said another source.
There were a few occasions during the UPA era when the cabinet agenda was circulated close to the meeting or personally delivered to ministers’ homes late at night. But those instances were few and often concerning sensitive issues.