The PM must ensure discipline with autonomy and openness
Restoring the true spirit of a cabinet system will go a long way in regenerating India’s institutional landscape
With the Prime Minister (PM) and the Council of Ministers sworn in, Narendra Modi’s second term has begun. And it has begun with tremendous expectations, as the PM has mentioned in his speeches since the massive verdict which swept him to power. Distilled to its core, the mandate of 2019 was a faith vote -- faith in Mr Modi and his ability to defend the interests of the Indian state, and advance the goals of growth, development, national security and stability. But in a complex political and constitutional structure such as India, one man cannot govern on his own. And that is why the Cabinet is so essential to perform the diverse functions of the state.
India’s Cabinet system has seen an evolution in the past decade. The second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) saw the undermining of the Cabinet arrangement. Each minister almost functioned like a sovereign republic unto himself. The Prime Minister’s authority was severely weakened. Details of Cabinet meetings were leaked even as they were underway. The lack of coordination among different ministries was visible in policy. This changed entirely in 2014. For the last five years, the PM and his office reigned absolutely supreme over all governance issues. The ministers had limited authority, and limited autonomy. There was a perception that Cabinet meetings were no longer spaces for open debate and discussion -- from where a healthy consensus would emerge -- and instead were mere formalities. Except sanitised press statements, the government became restrictive in its outside interactions.
In 2019, Mr Modi has the ability to carve out a new balance. The PM in our system is the first among equals. Given the political weight Mr Modi has, there is little doubt that his office will exercise considerable influence. When this results in close monitoring of ministries, projects, targets, it is actually beneficial. At the same time, the Cabinet system has a certain logic. The ministers are representatives who understand ground realities. When they are allowed freedom, they often come up with innovative solutions. Free and frank discussions, and disagreements, in the Cabinet often generate more sound policy. And engagement with outside stakeholders, including the press, helps generate informed debate. To deliver on the expectations of the electorate, Mr Modi would do well to continue with the discipline he instituted in his last term, but make way for autonomy and openness alongside. Restoring the true spirit of a Cabinet system will go a long way in regenerating India’s institutional landscape.