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Masters of a new game

Any future Prime Minister will have to find a suitable, trusted person within his Cabinet whose mandate will be to steer a variety of GoMs. Future coalitions will need ministers who can balance specialisation with inter-operability, writes Ashok Malik.
Hindustan Times | By Ashok Malik
UPDATED ON MAR 01, 2009 10:17 PM IST

As the Lok Sabha election process begins, the roll-call of potential prime ministers is getting longer. A confused political landscape; conundrums of regional parties; lack of any apparent all-India theme — no wonder a dozen politicos harbour ambitions of 7 Race Course Road.

Yet, it is not just the Prime Minister who will determine the locus and stability of any future government. Neither will the Finance Minister necessarily be the only ‘expert’ in the Cabinet. As the coalition system matures and as India’s governance challenges evolve, a degree of specialisation has come to be required for other key jobs.

Looking back at the UPA experience, with its attributes and failings, four examples stand out. First, ‘Minister for Groups of Ministers (GoMs)’ may sound a mouthful but is at the cusp of becoming a Cabinet portfolio in its own right.

Pranab Mukherjee chaired some 100 GoMs and won recognition as the UPA’s in-house problem solver. It is important to understand why these problems arose in the first place. The GoM was a contrivance devised by the NDA government (1999-2004). It gained importance when the Committee of Secretaries (CoS) — a predecessor arrangement, in a sense — was found wanting.

The CoS gained prominence in the PV Narasimha Rao years. As India’s economy opened up, policy restructuring became imperative. Some of this involved inter-ministerial and cross-departmental initiatives. Once the Cabinet had given the clearance, the nitty-gritty was left to civil servants.

This system worked in the time of one-party government, not with coalitions. If the military had to release spectrum for mobile phone companies, and if the Defence and Telecom Ministers belonged to different regional parties, the turf battle acquired political overtones. It was left to the Prime Minister to sort things out, to broker a deal. The GoM became his trouble-shooting mechanism.

Given this, any future Prime Minister will have to find a suitable, trusted person within his Cabinet whose mandate will be to steer a variety of GoMs. He needs to come with the reputation of being an astute and credible political manager. As coalitions become more fractious, the agenda before the ‘Minister for GoMs’ will only grow.

Second, 20 years ago, the Home Minister was generally a geriatric who used the Intelligence Bureau to spy on opponents and occasionally threatened non-Congress state governments with dismissal. That template is history, though it took the UPA four years to find out.

The 21st century Home Minister is India’s internal security czar. He needs the stamina and intellectual calibre to read through and internalise intelligence briefings, to ask the right questions, to assess the human and legal gaps that need to be filled to make India safer, to understand the nature of the war against terrorism. This is as technocratic a job description as that for the Finance Minister.

Third, a global slowdown may not be the most opportune moment to make this point, but the fact is that the convergence of India’s trade and foreign policies is becoming compelling. Countries as far apart as Australia and Brazil have united their trade and foreign ministries; how long can India resist the inevitable? With the singular exception of Pakistan, there is perhaps no bilateral or multilateral relationship in which India cannot leverage its business and trade heft.

In May 2005, Manmohan Singh set up the Trade and Economic Relations Committee (TERC). Chaired by the Prime Minister himself, the TERC comprises, among others, the finance, foreign and commerce ministers. As a collective, it runs economic diplomacy, having usurped the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) domain. To take the TERC idea to its logical conclusion, the massive bureaucracies of the Ministry of Commerce and the MEA would need to be merged. Of course, entrenched lobbies would resist this. In the short run, what cannot be easily institutionalised may well be individualised. Could the two ministries come under the same minister? This almost happened after K. Natwar Singh was sacked as foreign minister following his implication in the ‘Oil for Food’ scandal. Kamal Nath, the Commerce Minister, was briefly considered for South Block as well.

Fourth, the role of the National Security Advisor (NSA) as the Prime Minister’s big-picture foreign policy counsellor has to be properly defined. As Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NSA, Brajesh Mishra left his fingerprints on grand strategy. JN Dixit would have shaped the character of the job. Unfortunately, he died six months after being named Manmohan Singh’s NSA.

The NSA’s role then devolved on the internal security advisor. Soon, the PMO’s diplomatic focus was entirely on the India-United States nuclear deal and, more mysteriously, a breakthrough with Pakistan. There was little bandwidth for anything else. It was deemed convenient for the stop-gap NSA to just stay on.

While this highly unusual set of circumstances is not likely to recur, it must be accepted that there is no template for an NSA. Each incumbent is free to rewrite his charter.

Should the NSA be a foreign policy innovator who defies conventional MEA wisdom? If so, would it help if he came from outside the foreign service fraternity? Should he reflect new diplomatic force multipliers such as, for instance, corporate India’s investments abroad? Should he take his title literally and build intelligence and covert capabilities in the near-neighbourhood to enhance India’s security?

The next government must have answers.

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