Needed, Minister With An MA, Not An MP

The institutional tripod of the State has become an unstable arrangement on two legs. Articles 75(5) and 164(4) must go.

by T.S.R. Subramanian

Parliament Redundant appendix in governance systemIn many circles, there is concern and unease about the stability of our Republic, as we see it function today. A democracy’s purpose is to foster the welfare of the people. Has India moved in the right direction in respect of basic parameters? Any objective analysis will conclude that we have actually regressed in many ways. The very recent national survey threw up the statistic that 55 per cent of all rural families depend on daily wages; if the ‘breadwinner’ is sick for a week, the family will starve! It is likely that the estimates of the Arjun Sengupta and N.C. Saxena committees a decade back are close to the mark—over 70 per cent of the population is still in poverty.

In the field of education, enrolment has gone up, but successive Annual Status of Education Reports highlight depressing statistics indicating a sharp decline in standards of primary schooling. In the ’60s and ’70s, a number of Indian universities found place in the top 100 in the world; today there is not one in the top 500; higher education is largely a black-money generation business today, not an academic arena. One does not see any significant move to reverse the trends; the need to do anything is apparently not even recognised officially by the government.

New jobs need to be created. Training youth in skilled trades is a key part of future strategy. In an IT-dominated era, quality literacy and ability to comprehend basic applications/ operations are also key. Given the state of our education system, though, the spectre of hordes of unemployable youth roaming the streets looms large. There is the clear possibility that unl­ess the trends are reversed, what we see as the ‘demographic dividend’ now may in the next decades turn out to be a ‘demographic disaster’.

Then there’s public health. A recent UN study by HelpAge International indicates that India is among the worst countries for old people to live in, from the healthcare point of view; and our children are among the most undernourished in the world. Anaemia, particularly for women, is rampant (over 50 per cent) in large parts of India.

An energy shortfall hampers growth, particularly in the rural sector. The management of water resources in the country has been unimaginative and abysmal. In urban housing,  transportation and so on, we have been outpaced by a large number of countries in Asia and Africa, seen to be laggards six decades ago—the list can go on and on.

Major reforms, in short, are imperative. GST, land acquisition and other measures relating to the mechanics of administration must be accompanied by electoral reforms aimed at ensuring clean politics. And simultaneously, the police and civil services must be granted a degree of functional auto­nomy; the judiciary needs total insulation. Even all this tinkering with fundamentals, though, may not suffice to grant us a new growth trajectory.

Healthcare A sector that has failed all Indians.On a closer look, the State is in an unstable equilibrium. The structure leans more heavily on the executive and judiciary—the legislature has effectively been rendered a non-player. Even if Parliament met only once a year to pass (or reject) draft legislation placed before it, and give (or deny) a vote of confidence, all of which would take a total of two hours annually, one could argue it would have done its work as competently as it is doing today, with far less collateral damage. For, Parliament today functions as a redundant appendix in our governance system. The main reason for this is that the executive and the legislature are really two faces of the same coin. The political executive is the dominant force in the legislature; it also is the governing force in the nation’s administration. The stability of the system requires that the executive and the legislature balance each other—this has been lost, through mutual infiltration and blending. Herein can be traced a fundamental weakness in our system—what is sought to be an institutional tripod supporting governance actually is an unstable arrangement on two legs.

The British model—on which India’s governance structure was based—operates in a broadly homogeneous, educated, affluent society, comparatively speaking.  India was many-faced, largely uneducated, poor, had never seen democracy—in some senses an alien system was imposed on a country not yet ready for it. It is unrealistic to expect that a Constitution framed thus would, in its fundamental aspects, adequately cover our needs for all times to come. Justice M.N. Venkatachalaiah had indeed done great harm by declaring that the Constitution was nearly perfect and did not need any change. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we need to see whether some critical changes can act as a game changer.

Indeed, many aspects of the US presidential form have already surreptitiously made their appearance. In nearly every state, the chief minister is not just the head of the cabinet, he or she is all-powerful, and nearly always the sole decision-maker in the system. The Chief Minister’s Office really controls all major and a number of minor decisions; most ministers have only a nominal sphere of influence. Many of them use their chair mainly to extract rent, support various mafias, and generally make sure that their tenure is well-spent in terms of covering all their massive election expenditure—past and future—and then a large nest-egg to cover the next 10 generations is hatched! This may sound a little exaggerated, but essentially reflects the ground reality in most states.

At the Centre, administration sharply deteriorated from the mid-’70s. The PMO became stronger, and ministers built their little extractive fiefdoms using ingenious methods, and their only other function was to offer a sort of cumulative political support to the leader. In the states, the extraction is done openly, with well-established systems in each department (land allotment, land-use change, excise, environment approvals, mining, transfers and postings, etc). At the Centre, the process was grander but subtler, more sophisticated. But again, akin to a presidential system, with all major decisions taken by the PMO.

BijliReaders not familiar with the prevailing circumstances inside the secretariats and the field may perhaps feel the portrayal as given above is exaggerated and unfair to the political class. But it’s natural that failures will be attributed to the top layer of management much as they rightly claim credit for successes. Our Constitution-makers made a blunder by not prescribing any checks and balances on the political class; and it’s human nature that any group allowed to function without any supervision tends towards exces­ses—Gresham’s law ordains that the worst practices will become the norm over time. Insiders know that the minister figure is not only generally a dead loss, s/he is also often mostly counter-productive to the main function assigned to them—viz, work for the interest of the general public.

Articles 75(5) and 164(4) of the Constitution ordain that each minister should be a member of a legislature. The question arises as to why this should be so. A minister is the head of a department, whose role is to supervise evolution of policies and procedures, implementation of programmes and projects, and ensure all these are done professionally, with high quality, and in public interest. Thus the job requirement ought to be knowledge and experience of the field, a proven track record, ability to lead teams, and generate results—much like the role of a general manager in a corporation who need not necessarily be a part of the ownership of the company. Why should it be mandated that only an elected or nominated MLA or MP becomes the chief of a department, which is usually a large empire? In what manner is the MLA or MP exclusively qualified to inspire, conceive, implement, supervise and monitor large programs? By definition, the executive position is non-political in nature—it is neutral implementation of policies and programs; why should it be in the exclusive domain of an elected representative to hold this post? Isn’t it logical to choose the best person available?

There is no doubt that much talent of many varieties is available among our legislators. Many MLAs are masters in managing bands of thugs and gangsters in their constituencies to ensure ‘order’ in their mini-fiefdoms. Many have expertise in beating up toll-booth personnel, or gate-crashing private clubs. All legislators are experts in self-aggrandisement, obfuscation, and giving themselves pay-rises. But these are not the qualifications requi­red to imaginatively and inspirationally conceive plans and manage a large development department. How many MLAs or MPs are there who can get a degree college lecturer’s job and hold it with credit? How many legislators will a Ratan Tata or a Shiv Nadar hire on merit to be a project manager—six rungs below the executive director; indeed how many ministers can one identify who can hold down an undersecretary or section officer’s job in their own ministry with reasonable competence! No doubt there are politicians with high IQ and ability; no company chief will ever hire them, as they will be perceived to have the potential and capability to sell the company down the river overnight. That a circus acrobat has talent does not alone qualify him or her to become a vice-chancellor. Is it not absurd to prescribe a qualification, say, that the national basketball team will be selected only from those who are 5 feet 4 inches tall (national average) or below? Should a fisherman, say having only experience of wielding a basic catamaran, be catapulted without any training or experience to command a Dreamliner?

It suited our politicians to pick up only the negative aspects of the British and US systems; why should we not benefit from the positive elements? A minister is a planning, implementing auth­ority; their primary job is not to legislate. Why should a pure executive area be unnecessarily given a political colour, as if it is only a politician who can achieve development? Seven decades have proved this assumption to be absurd.

Indians have a great performance record all over the world. In the US, the Indian community has the highest per capita income among all others—many Indians are qualified to head the largest universities, institutions or corporates. There are academics, scholars, businessmen, scientists, all eminently qualified to head ministries. Why should our administration tie its own legs with self-impo­sed restrictions while running a 100-metre dash? Articles 75(5) and 164(4) thus deserve to be jettisoned without delay. Surely the “reservation” of ministerial berths exclusively for legislators is a travesty of the “reservation” principle—the politician is the most privileged class in the country! Such reservation is fundamentally inimical to the basic interest of the citizen, guaranteed by the Constitution.

It may be argued that it’s essential to have a political head to lead each ministry. This is highly fallacious. In the first place, political ministers behave as politicians first and as an executive second; their focus is on ensuring their own political continuity and relevance. They are able to devote utmost 25 per cent time to the ministry, and that too mostly without any redeeming contribution. Manmohan Singh, who was nominally an MP, in all probability spent four hours in his entire life in Guwahati, getting his nomination papers for the Rajya Sabha filed—how was he politically contributing to the interests of Assam, which he represented? Anyway a minister, as an executive, is not expected to cater to any particular constituency.

If Articles 75(5) and 164(4) are rescinded, it will enable the prime minister to choose his or her senior management team from the best talent available, from any source; this may also include MPs who qualify on grounds of competence. One may well ask why the secretariat also should not be permitted to get talent from outside.  Under the proposed dispensation, the open market minister would normally not be familiar with the legal, statutory and procedural constraints under which government as a public body functions (as opposed to private institutions); thus a permanent civil servant would necessarily have to be there at a very senior level to assist the minister to ensure that the internal governmental procedures are kept in mind and not breached, and that institutional advice is appropriately available to the minister.

While rescinding Articles 75(5) and 164(4), it may also be useful to have the “outside” ministers—drawn from academia, industry or business, banking, civil society, media, ngos, or any other source—become temporary members of the legislature concerned, so long as they hold the office of minister. It may be useful to have a new sub-article inserted to the effect that any minister, not already a member of legislature (at the Centre or the state as the case may be), would automatically be deemed to be a member of the concerned legislature, but without voting rights, so long as he or she enjoys the confidence of the President.

Let this be said. It is possible to take a legal view that Articles 75(5) and 164(4) are in fact inconsistent with Article 21 of the Constitution. The people of the country deserve the best available governance and administration; choice of selection of leaders for governance should not be confined to one particular class or group, especially when it has no special experience or background in performance record management. The proposal des­erves to come up for national debate, and if found acceptable, logical, and likely to be beneficial, the next debate should move on to how it can be implemented.

There is a proximate context in which the merits of the argument can be considered. We have a prime minister who professes great interest in change and speedy development. Even so, one can see that a certain gap exists—there is no management bandwidth in his administration in the form of ministers to convert these ideas into reality. The country is too large to be run by one individual, however powerful his personal office may be; there is just not enough talent in the cabinet to convert his ideas into actionable programs, through experienced persons of integrity, ability and proven performance; alas, there is a grave danger that such moments in history may be lost for the country, because of a flawed element in our Constitution.

There really needs to be fear that the government or governance will lose touch with political realities; in the first place, party politics will ensure that overall political balancing will be achieved, through the prime minister and through appropriate consultation mechanisms. Secondly, this change will give new life to the legislature; the cosy, incestuous relationship bet­ween the legislative and exe­cutive wings will change to one of the legislature regaining its originally intended inqui­sitional ability to oversee executive functions; the nation’s governance will be on a more settled platform, under three institutional pillars.

Surely the political class will oppose and object to these proposals; many esoteric and outlandish arguments will be trotted out to suggest that this proposal will be “anti-people”—this is natural. The fact is that the articles proposed to be rescinded are against the interests of the people. No rights or concern of the people will get violated; on the contrary, policy, program and project conception, implementation and management will sharply imp­rove. A collateral benefit would be that Parliament would then have a functional role to oversee and monitor the work of the executive—its legitimate function, in addition to its law-making role. The real issue ought to be whether the political class will support this proposal—as interested parties, they should, in an ideal situation, have no role in the debate. The nation should debate this issue, come to a conclusion, and really get the political class to implement it, through an appropriate amendment to the Constitution.

T.S.R. Subramanian is former Union cabinet secretary.