Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has inducted a total 79 ministers in his new cabinet. What it means that a little over every third Member of Parliament (MP) out of the total 262 that constitute his United Progress Alliance (UPA) is now a minister of some kind. A more troubling example of political largesse would be harder to find.
In an incident symbolic of the unseemly haste to become a minister among the new MPs, V Narayanasamy from Puducherry began taking the oath of office even before President Pratibha Patil could call on him. The president had to say “wait, wait, wait” to stop Narayanswamy from running ahead of the rest.
Bloated cabinets are a direct consequence of India’s coalition politics which have ruled the country for over a decade and half. Since no national party is able to claim a simple majority in parliament on its own strength, it has to depend upon several regional parties whose lust for power is on full display as they go about ensuring cabinet positions for the chosen ones out of their handful of MPs. One could argue that this is a compelling example of how representative democracy should function. But then one could also argue that cabinet formation is a form of employment guarantee scheme for MPs.
The Republican Party in the United States, which froths at its mouth in outrage on a daily basis at the expansion of government, would become disoriented with incomprehension if it were in India. In some sense it is impossible for any prime minister to avoid giant cabinets in a coalition government because coalitions are formed with the singular purpose of sharing the loot after the elections. No attempt is made to finesse the sordid deal-making that attends the immediate aftermath of a victory. To that extent it is an open system, except that the specifics of the deals are generally hidden from the public.
As I had mentioned earlier this deal-making is unapologetically about grabbing the most lucrative of government ministries and not about wanting to make improve the quality of governance. The latter tends to be an unintended consequence of all the politicking.
There is another device that coalition governments use to adjust to the political fault lines which invariably start surfacing midterm. That device is cabinet reshuffling which is used by any prime minister to address new power centers which may have emerged. All in all coalition governments in India, as I suppose anywhere in the world, are broadly about stopping restive partners from whipping out their daggers from time to time. Considering that Singh’s Congress Party controls 206 seats out of the mandatory 262 to form a simple majority government, things are likely to be relatively easy this time around.