Thursday, May 28, 2009

Delay in selecting ministers: good or bad?

This editorial in the Telegraph laments the fact that the formation of the council of ministers took twelve days:
This inordinate delay in forming a team that is supposed to present to the nation an effective government creates a very sorry spectacle of the prime minister and the Congress president. The delay can only be read as evidence of the lack of clarity in decision-making.

I think the delay has been good for politics, and should be institutionalised. No one can argue that but for DMK tantrums, we would have had a council of ministers in place in 24 hours. The delay was hardly by deliberate design. But having been forced to stagger cabinet formation, albeit willy-nilly, the results are largely positive. These 12 days generated intense democratic debate on the merit of the individuals in contention, including on this blog. Until the election, everyone is too busy predicting who will win, and the shape of the next government is almost never discussed. Then we have the results and the cabinet the next day. There is no democratic opinion to inform the Prime Minister in his exercise of the prerogative. This time was different. The intense media focus on non-performers must at least in part be the reason why Arjun Singh, Shivraj Patil and HR Bhardwaj did not make it.

The US system gives the President-elect over two months to form their team, and every candidate is intensely scrutinised by the President as well as the media. We did well this time. The process of a staggered swearing in, with only the PM (and if we must, perhaps a few key and relatively uncontroversial Ministers) should be sworn in the day after the results, while the rest of the Cabinet must wait a while.

[If my hypothesis that democratic debate had some impact on the shape of the cabinet is true, then lawyers seem to be popular with newspaper columnists. Nearly half of the new ministers seem to have law degrees.]

Update: Dear Suresh, thanks very much for helpful comments. The title has been suitably amended. Here are my responses to your worries:

1. I agree that unlike in the US, we don't have a system of direct legislative confirmation of ministers. The problem at hand is one of democratic control over exercise of (a fairly important) executive power. Sure, legislatures in some countries are mandated to exercise this control. But even there, they do not do so exclusively. Civil society and media perform the same task, only differently. In fact, absence of direct legislative supervision in India only strengthens my argument that at least media and civil society must have an opportunity to comment and criticise the candidates. This is certainly not an argument against also considering legislative controls (although pragmatic concerns around constitutional amendment may make it less feasible).

2. By institutionalisation, I only meant institutionalisation as a constitutional convention. Here is a good precedent being set (although the criterion of the mental state of being obliged to follow it is not satisfied in the current case), and has some good reasons in its favour. Future PMs must take it seriously, and in the process, lay the foundations of a convention. In circumstances like 1991, the convention will be flexible enough to accomodate exceptional urgency. But as a rule, I think it is healthy for a democracy to allow civil society a week or so to debate the shape of the council of ministers. And if that reduces the possibility of incompetent ministers (for, unlike legislative confirmation hearings, civil society/media criticisms cannot be determinative), the extra week spent will pay itself many times over in the next five years.

3. Yes, this will help only with a strong civil society. But as you yourself note, we are getting there. But at least the conditions must exist - swearing-in of the council of ministers within 24 hours of the elections presents the nation with a fait accompli.

4. The possibility of pressure and bargaining by allies cannot be discounted. But on that question, delay can cut both ways. As the current example shows, the PM used delay to make the DMK blink first. It was the opposite convention (of immediate swearing-in of the entire council) which mounted the pressure.

What I suggest will not be a panacea, but just a small step towards greater democratic accountability. That's all.

Update 2: Veerappa Moily is the new Minister for Law and Justice. One can expect some of the proposals made by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, chaired by him, to translate into practice.
Post a Comment