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V.BALACHANDRAN
POLICE & STATE

V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

Large Cabinet does not mean better governance

Need for huge Cabinets arose when ministers realised ‘cutting edge of power’ lay in transfers and postings.

s it necessary to have a large Council of Ministers to supervise a big bureaucracy in a democracy? The UPA government had 77 members, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Council has only 46. Undivided India's first "Interim Government" of 2 September 1946 under Jawaharlal Nehru as Vice-President of the Viceroy's Executive Council, had only 12 members, all from the Congress. When the Muslim League joined the government on 15 October 1946, the size became 14. After partition, Prime Minister Nehru's Council had 16 ministers, while the one in 1950, after we became a republic, had 20. In 1957 his Council was 38 strong.

An increase in population is often the justification for a big Council of Ministers and a large bureaucracy. This might have been acceptable in a command economy, but not now. It is not that governance was any easier during the immediate years before Independence, during partition and later. Even in 1946, most of the core departments for governance and development functioned as they are now under ministers, who also had to manage the pre-partition problems. The communal situation was very challenging after the 1945 elections. The Bengal Hindu Mahasabha was agitating for a separate Hindu province, while communal feelings were rising in Assam, with the mass migration of East Bengal Muslims to occupy that state's reserved grazing lands. Efforts by the Assam government to prevent migration were met with violent agitation by the Muslim League. Communal riots in Bengal and Punjab in 1946-47 resulted in about 10,000 deaths. The food situation was worsening. Rising prices led to agitation by the Communist Party and strikes. The small council of ministers had to manage the horrendous partition riots, an exchange of nearly 14 million refugees from both sides and a death toll estimated to be one million.

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The over enthusiasm of our ministers in dabbling with day to day administration is the real reason why our bureaucracy has become indolent, waiting for ministers to take the initiative, while also keeping their offices to enjoy the perks and privileges of government officers.

While only 12 politicians managed these crisis situations from policy making positions during 1946-1947, they were supported by the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the upper layer of the Indian bureaucracy, which in 1947 had only 980 officers divided between the Centre and the states. To this we should add the armed forces and the largely depleted police forces who had to manage these convulsions despite being in the process of being partitioned. In 1946, India had only one battalion strength of Central Reserve Police (Crown Representative Police, which later became our present CRP). Yet, this small number of ministers, civil bureaucracy, armed forces and police were able to preserve our democracy and prevent our vast country from descending into an abyss of civil war and disintegration.

How did they manage to do that? It is not that they did no defence related or economic development oriented work in those days. Between 1946 and 1954, work on nuclear development (ARC) and giant irrigation and power projects like Bhakra Nangal and Damodar Valley had started. Our industrial base was firmly established, with big steel plants in Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur, while Bharat Electronics, the communications facilitator, took us to modern times.

Did our bureaucrats work harder in those days carrying the burden of governance, leaving only policymaking to the ministers? There is no doubt about that if we read the memoirs of just one such top civil servant, the late V.P. Menon, who was Reforms Commissioner under the Viceroys and later Secretary, States Department just before Independence. He enjoyed the highest credibility with the British and Congress leaders. He was everywhere during pre-Independence negotiations, had drafted the India Independence Bill 1947 and assisted the late Sardar Patel in securing the merger of 554 princely states before 1950 with a very small staff. Patel, who was keeping indifferent health, did not have to stir out of Delhi for personally negotiating with the princes.

The need for a huge council of ministers arose when our ministers realised that the "cutting edge of power" lay in transfers and postings rather than laying down policies. The over enthusiasm of our ministers in dabbling with day to day administration is the real reason why our bureaucracy has become indolent, waiting for ministers to take the initiative, while also keeping their offices to enjoy the perks and privileges of government officers. In that process, the people are the sufferers since they are being crushed under a huge council of ministers and an equally bloated bureaucracy.

 
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