Modi's style of governance: Faster, leaner and smarter?

With Narendra Modi’s ascension to the Prime Minister’s office, a new phrase has entered the political lexicon: “minimum government, maximum governance,” the idea of a leaner, smarter government focused on faster execution. Explaining this promise, Modi said, “Government means rules and governance means delivery. Government implies authority while governance implies accountability. Government is power while governance is empowerment. Where there are files, there is government. Where there is life that is governance. We must fill the files with life. Governments can be tangled in files, governance must make life better.” In short, he promises to hold the bureaucracy accountable for service delivery and freedom from red tape.

Modi showed signs of fulfilling the promise in his ministerial announcements, which featured a leaner, smarter cabinet that integrated what were previously separate portfolios. The National Democratic Alliance government combined seventeen related ministries into seven different groups: a combined surface transport ministry that includes road transport, shipping & highways under Nitin Gadkari; a combined power, coal & renewable energy ministry under Piyush Goyal; related ministries of Urban Development, Housing and Poverty Alleviation under M Venkaiah Naidu; Finance, and Corporate Affairs under Arun Jaitley; and External Affairs with Overseas Indian Affairs under Sushma Swaraj. The objective of this downsizing is to bring coherence and greater synergy between ministries, with a focus on “transforming an entity of assembled ministries to Organic Ministries” as the official press release said.

Another aspect of the new government’s plan to deliver effective governance is the increased importance of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has included “all important policy issues” in his own Cabinet portfolio, thus giving his office responsibility for directing policy issues across departments and focusing policy making in the PMO. The PMO may seek to create a category which would delineate and include all important policy matters, to ensure a direct role for the PMO on key issues irrespective of the ministries.

The Modi government has also abolished the practice of setting up groups of ministers (GoMs) and empowered groups of ministers (EGoMs), which is intended to expedite decision making and allow the PMO and Cabinet Secretary to step in when a ministry faces difficulties. This is in stark contrast to Manmohan Singh’s UPA government which largely relied on the GoM/EGoM format to resolve inter-ministerial conflicts. These GoMs and EGoMs were said to be major instruments of policy paralysis in the UPA reign. At one point, there were 80 such bodies, of which 50 were headed by then Finance Minister (now President) Pranab Mukherjee instead of by the Prime Minister. Several of these panels never actually met, including those on interlinking rivers, the Amritsar-Kolkata Industrial Corridor, and amendment to the Minimum Wages Act.

Another institution which may face a similar fate due to the increased focus on effective delivery of services is the Planning Commission. India is one of the few countries which still relies on central planning for a 5 year period, executed by the Planning Commission. China, the only other country which has persisted with a system of central planning, has turned its eleventh five-year plans into guidelines. It is conjectured that Modi, who has often questioned the role of the Commission, will restructure its role and that the Commission may become smaller and more accountable. The appointment of Inderjit Singh Rao as a Minister of State (MoS) with an independent charge of planning may be an indication of this. All key decisions related to fund allocation will come under the mandate of Minister Rao.  

The public reaction to these changes has been largely positive. During the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, conflicts between related ministries resulted in projects being put on hold. The integrated ministries are expected to improve the speed of decision-making and allow for unified policies that follow a long-term vision.

However, the moves have also raised questions. Writing in the Economic Times, Siddharth Varadarajan doubts the efficacy of the bureaucracy to adjust to such changes and the ability of the appointed ministers to handle such increased assignments, saying, “In the absence of an optimum number of ministers, the business of government in some ministries will end up being handled by rule-bound, risk-averse bureaucrats.”

During Modi’s tenure as Gujarat Chief Minister, a lean government helped achieve uniformity and predictability in policy making. While implementing this at the national level will require significant restructuring, it is expected that the model of single window clearances will hasten decision-making processes and increase bureaucratic accountability. The dividends that ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ will yield remain to be seen but for the moment, hope is high that the changes will lead to a streamlined and more effective bureaucratic structure.