There were a total of 17 ministers in the first cabinet of independent India headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. The others in his team included such men of calibre as Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, B.R. Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Baldev Singh and Shanmukham Chetty. Manmohan Singhled a government more than four times bigger in size, with 29 cabinet ministers, 12 ministers of state with independent charge of their portfolios and another 29 regular ministers of state. That is 70 in all. There is no evidence that more ministers has led to better governance.

Narendra Modi has often said that he believes in minimum government combined with maximum governance. He should thus consider going in for a smaller cabinet than what we have become used to in recent decades. It is time to revert to the earlier practice of ruling with a relatively small but efficient cabinet.

There are three big reasons why cabinets have expanded in size. One, the replacement of the colonial state with the development state quite naturally led to an increase in the tasks that the government took upon itself. Two, successive governments in New Delhi have invaded the turf that has been reserved for states in our constitutional division of powers; agriculture and health are prime examples. Three, ministries became vehicles of political patronage in the era of coalition politics with even the Indira Gandhi cabinets being far more lean than its successors; the worst manifestation of patronage politics has been the malign practice of handing out to allies ministries that provide opportunities to make money.

Modi has indicated a preference for small government; has a clear mandate from voters; and has often said he does not want to treat state chief ministers as underlings. This is a perfect time for him to move towards a leaner but more efficient cabinet.

Here are a few specific suggestions. India needs to take a hard look its ability to fuel its economic growth in the coming decades without facing an energy crunch. There are currently three ministries in the energy sector—power, petroleum and natural gas, and renewable energy. It makes sense to fuse them into a single ministry.

It similarly makes sense to integrate the railways, roads and shipping ministries so that the country gets an integrated transport strategy rather than the current mess. The recent problem of power plants being built without proper coal supplies could have been avoided if policy had been handled by one minister. It is worth noting that China has an integrated ministry of land and resources as well as a single ministry of transport.

Then there is the issue of ministries that are irrelevant in our times. There is no need for a ministry of information and broadcasting, as the former minister in charge of the portfolio, Manish Tewari, reportedly admitted last week. Is there a need for a separate ministry of urban poverty alleviation? A ministry of culture? A ministry of heavy industries? And a ministry for at micro, small and medium enterprises? What about a ministry of pensions?

Several ministries can safely be shut down while some of their tasks are handed over to independent regulators. Modi should also consider setting up technocratic missions that have very specific goals on the lines of what Rajiv Gandhi had tried when he came to power. Some of the projects he has been talking about are best dealt with through such commissions—cleaning the Ganga, building new cities, setting up high-speed rail links, for example.

The next prime minister is evidently a man who understands that the quality of governance is not linked to the size of government. That is welcome. It is high time that the number of ministries in New Delhi is cut by half.

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