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.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • Dear Tarunabh,

    1. Your use of the word evil in the title of your post is strange. Delay may be bad but evil?

    2. I am puzzled by your comparing our system to the US one. In the US, all cabinet appointments have to be ratified by the senate via a confirmation hearing. Furthermore, the incoming team has a “transition period” of about 2 months between the election in November and the inauguration in January. We have neither confirmation hearings nor a transition period.

    If I understand you right, you are proposing an institutionalized “delay time” of, say, two weeks before the new government takes office. But, in the absence of anything like a confirmation hearing, I fail to see what this enforced delay is going to do. It might actually have bad consequences by giving people time to “pressurize” the Prime Minister into giving them cabinet appointments.

    3. Right now, we do not have an immediate crisis on our hands (though a number of issues do need attention) and so, we can “afford” the delay. But suppose we were faced with a crisis of the magnitude that we had in 1991 where foreign exchange reserves were dangerously low. Would enforced delay still be acceptable?

    Note also that no significant policy decisions can be taken once elections are announced. Given that elections nowadays take a month, there is already a gap of two months or more during which the government is effectively on “autopilot”. Additional enforced delay is simply not acceptable, in my opinion.

    4. With regard to Arjun Singh and others, their non-performance and even plain bad performance had been noted over the tenure of the last government in a number of articles in the (English-language) press. I am not sure that it’s the 12 day delay that has contributed to their exclusion. It is, however, noteworthy that in spite of the delay, one of the controversial ministers in the last cabinet, the DMK’s A. Raja, still finds a place here. (What Raja as communications minister did in the allocation of spectrum licences, in my opinion, verges on the criminal.)

    5. Having said all this, closer scrutiny of people appointed to cabinet and even constitutional positions is certainly desirable. I can only admire the immediate and detailed scrutiny to which the US press has subjected Judge Sotomayor’s judicial record following President Obama’s nomination of her. In contrast, the exact procedures by which appointments to our Supreme Court are made is still a mystery for most of us.

    But I am not sure institutionalized delay will help here. Ultimately, this is a problem of weakness of our civil society and this is reflected in various places. For instance, as many as 153 of our current parliamentarians are accused of various crimes, some fairly serious. This, inspite of various types of civil initiatives to prevent the election of “tainted” candidates.

    However, as compared to say 20 years back, certainly things are better. We did have a debate (of some sort) over the merits of Navin Chawla and there was sufficient pressure to result in the exclusion of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar from the list of Congress candidates. (Unfortunately, it looks as though that’s as far as we will get. Justice for the victims of the 1984 massacres looks unlikely. And one of the Congress candidates is actually Sajjan Kumar’s brother!) That’s a plus point. Needless to say, things need to get a whole lot better.

  • I agree with Suresh’s points.

    One noteworthy thing about the US political system which you have referred to is the complete absence of caste considerations in government formation. You do not seem to have considered the impact of the matrix of caste representation and caste balancing in the new government, which, if the press is to be believed, contributed greatly to the delay in forming the government.

    Such considerations are abominable, condemnable, and reprehensible. The caste system is evidently alive and thriving in our country, despite the fiction to the contrary that I was taught in school.

    I’m proud to say that I did not know of half the castes mentioned in the “news analysis” that I read. May our politicians also be like that some day, instead of continuing under the perpetual fiction of “unequals cannot be treated as equals” that is held to be gospel truth in our constitutional law.

  • The selection of ministers always puzzled me and I still that they are selected by political clout in the party. As Dhananjay was arguing earlier that lawyer can take up any issue by breaking it down into "pieces intelligible to court", people consider ministry to be headed by any parliamentarian.

    So I am kind of surprised when you say that the performance and scrutiny by media matters. It will be interesting if there was any book or paper on this issue. But there doesn't seem one. The google search doesn't reveal anything: selection india&oe=utf-8&rls=com.ubuntu:en-US:unofficial&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&hl=en&tab=ws

  • I understand from my sources that if Moily becomes the Law Minister, his choice for A-G will be P.P.Rao. But I doubt that given his representation of the petitioners in the Mandal II case. But I could be wrong.