91st Amendment: Impediment to good governance?

Columnist  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Oped

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s first Cabinet there was only one minister for food and agriculture.

Former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee

Soon it will be loaves and fishes’ time when ministries will have to be distributed to accommodate personal aspirations. How many can partake in the feast is limited by the 91st Amendment. But does even this contribute to better governance? Perhaps this period of transition is just the time to consider the limitations of the 91st Amendment?

On July 7, 2004, the 91st Amendment to the Constitution took effect. This meant that from that day on, the size of the councils of ministers at the Centre and in the states could not exceed 15 per cent of the numbers in the Lok Sabha or state legislatures. The logic underlying this amendment was quite obvious. The cost factor was not the issue, for in relation to the overall cost of government, expenditure on ministers is miniscule. The real problem is that with unlimited ministerships on offer, the destabilisation of governments was made easier. Unfortunately, there seems to be little realisation that too many cooks spoil the broth. Who can deny that our governments have so far only served up a vile and poisonous broth that has enfeebled the majority and kept the nation misgoverned?

Even the National Committee to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), set up by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, which recommended that the number of ministers “be fixed at the maximum of 10 per cent of the total strength of the popular House of the Legislature”, does not seem to have thought this matter through. But even its recommendation was tweaked a bit to fix the ceiling at 15 per cent, as we seem to have too many overly keen to be of greater service to the public by becoming ministers.

It would seem that the only reason why the amendment was whisked through, and whisked through is the only description for it for it was hardly discussed in Parliament or in the media, was to afford political managers some protection against the clamor for berths in government. Like good politicians, they naturally expect to come out smelling of roses at the same time! But there could be an unstated reason as well, that might have to do with distribution of wealth. Too many thieves could reduce the individual take? That, and making ministerships too commonplace, only devalued the worth of the jobs.

Whatever be the reason for the ceiling, good governance or management principles seem to have little to do with it. We have 543 MPs in the Lok Sabha, which means that we can have up to 81 ministers in New Delhi. With 787 MPs in both Houses, that means almost one in nine MPs can expect to be a minister. The states have in all 4,020 MLAs; opening up possibilities for around 600 ministerial berths for 4,487 MLAs and MLCs. Uttar Pradesh has the biggest Legislative Assembly, with 403 MLAs, while Sikkim at the other end of the spectrum has to make do with just 32 MLAs or just five ministers.

Quite clearly, the persons who applied their minds to this amendment have not seen government as a responsibility that has to be sensibly shared and not as a basket of fruits to be distributed. No organisation that is meant to function can be designed on such a basis. Analogies are seldom entirely appropriate, but you will see what one has in mind when you consider the absurdity of limiting the number of functional responsibilities in a company to a function of the number of workers on the payroll. Management structures and hierarchies are based on assignment of responsibilities based on a division of work according to the technical and managerial specialisation of tasks. Thus a company might have heads for the production, marketing, finance, HRD, legal and secretarial, and research functions. In small companies, just one or two persons may perform all these functions, while in a large professionally-managed corporation there would be separate or even more heads of functional areas. But you just can’t link this to the number of workers. The important thing is that management structures apportion tasks and responsibilities according to specialisation.

Obviously, the management of government is a much more complex, with an infinitely larger set of tasks than the biggest corporation, however professionally managed it may be. But to divide the management of the state into 39 functional responsibilities, as is the case now, is to exaggerate that magnitude and complexity. It is as if in an automobile company making and selling cars, the person responsible for making gearboxes is at the same level as the persons looking after the paint shop or procuring accessories. As if this was not bad enough, all these would then be at the same level as the head of production or marketing or finance. Yet this is how the Cabinet is organised. There is a minister for rural development and a minister for panchayati raj as there are ministers for irrigation and fertilisers, sitting on the same table as the minister for agriculture.

We know that all agriculture is rural and everything in the rural world revolves around agriculture, and so the case for separating the two goes straightaway. Besides, agriculture is about water, fertiliser, food distribution, food processing, agro and rural industries. And who has heard of forests in the urban areas? Thus, instead of having one person responsible for improving the lot of our farmers and rural folk, we have nine departments headed by nine ministers. They often work at cross purposes. Even if the ministers are willing, it will be almost impossible to make the bureaucratic structures march to the same beat. And so if the rural sector continues to languish, no one is responsible.

This was not the case 50 years ago. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s first Cabinet there was only one minister for food and agriculture. The only agriculture-related function not with this minister was irrigation. Gulzarilal Nanda held the portfolio of planning, irrigation and power. But in those days additional power was intended primarily from hydel projects and it thus possibly made sense to have irrigation outside the food and agriculture ministry.

Likewise, transport and railways was one ministry, while it has been broken up into five areas now. Some of them are ridiculously small. Take the ministry for civil aviation. Apart from Air India, Indian Airlines, Airports Authority of India and the DGCA, there is little to it. The first three are companies with full-time managers supposedly managing them. Since the ministry has little policy to make, it busies itself micromanaging the companies. And don’t the ministers for civil aviation just love that? The need for new aircraft and infrastructure have attendant benefits. And what is the need for a ministry of information and broadcasting when that means little more than Akashvani and Doordarshan? Mercifully, there is little by way purchases in I&B.

By now it should be quite apparent that the 91st Amendment is not good enough as it just does not address the problem. We now need a 92nd Amendment that will marginally change Article 74(1) of the Constitution to read “there will be a council of ministers consisting of the ministers for home affairs, defence, foreign relations, agriculture ….” Article 75(1), that makes it incumbent for the President to appoint ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister, remaining as it is then makes the choice of the ministers entirely his or hers. While we are at it, we might want to look at Article 75(5) afresh and consider the merit of eliminating the stipulation of getting elected to either House of Parliament or legislatures. In this manner we could encourage Prime Ministers and chief ministers to induct professional and competent persons rather than be limited to professional politicians.

But will the subject of a smaller and more functional government ever merit the politicians’ attention?