By abolishing the system of having Empowered Groups of Ministers and Groups of Ministers — of which there were nine and 21 respectively that he inherited from the UPA government — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sent out an unequivocal message: the new BJP-led NDA intends to end the “policy paralysis” that its predecessor was accused of, and achieve its goal of “minimum government, maximum governance.” A press note issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said this would empower the Ministries, expedite decision-making and usher in greater accountability. The mechanism of EGoMs and GoMs had been created by the first NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to tackle complex policy issues and resolve the clash of interests that are inevitable in a democracy, more so in a coalition where inter-ministerial turf wars are harder to resolve. However, under the UPA it often became an instrument to delay decisions. At one stage in UPA-II, around 80 such groups were grappling with a vast array of issues ranging from contentious matters such as the creation of Telangana, to the hotly debated ones of food security and land acquisition, to routine subjects such as post-retirement medical schemes and the age of superannuation for public sector workers. In the process, the authority and supremacy of the PMO got eroded, with the last incumbent, Dr. Manmohan Singh, virtually handing over his powers to the Ministers who headed most of these groups — Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar, P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony, all men of differing styles and persuasion.
Mr. Modi has made it clear he will brook no delay in taking decisions, and that he will have the last word on policy-making. While this should restore coherence in the functioning of the government, especially as the BJP’s decisive electoral mandate will ensure it is not hampered by difficult coalition partners, Mr. Modi must guard against administration by fiat. The Congress, citing the PMO press release that has asked all Ministers who have difficulties in deciding issues relating to their own Ministry to refer them to the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat for resolution, has cautioned that this should not lead to an unhealthy “centralisation of power” and an “autocratic regime in the future.” An omniscient super-PMO must not destroy the Cabinet system that envisages decisions through consensus. Rather, Mr. Modi should act as a facilitator, using persuasion and not diktat. He must rely on the collective wisdom of his Cabinet colleagues to create an effective — and harmonious — administration. In order to meet people’s expectations, Mr. Modi must not be tempted to become a single point of power, governing as he conducted his campaign, in a presidential manner, focussing all authority in the PMO. What worked in Gujarat may not succeed all across India.