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CHANCE NOT TO BE MISSED

The door of reform is ajar again. The choice of flinging it open fully depends on the new prime minister, Narendra Modi. But even with the prospect of the door slightly open, there is an enormous amount that could be done. It is not just a question of economic reforms but also of simple administrative measures that can be put in place simultaneously with the swearing-in of the prime minister and his new cabinet. First and foremost is the size of the cabinet. The standard practice in India has been to appoint a large number of ministers. There were two immediate results of this. One was the inclination to share the loaves and fishes of office. This became part and parcel of the Congress system and culture. The other reason became prominent in the era of coalition governments when various coalition partners had to be satisfied with ministerial berths. Mr Modi faces none of these compulsions. He is emphatically not a part of the Congress system and culture; and he has a popular mandate that enables him to ignore the demands of other political parties which form the National Democratic Alliance. Mr Modiís circumstances leave him free to fashion his cabinet in exactly the way he wants. Hence the possibility of a smaller cabinet.

One very easy way of reducing the size of the cabinet is to get rid of some redundant ministries. Why should there exist in this day and age ó and that too in a democracy ó a ministry of information and broadcasting? The government should, in fact, have no presence in the way information is gathered, handled and conveyed. This is a carry-over from the past and has little or no relevance today. There exist today separate ministries for food, agriculture and fertilizers. These can easily be brought under one ministry and this will make for streamlined functioning. Similarly, is there any need for a ministry of commerce and industry? Do these activities require a strong presence? All they need is a set of regulatory guidelines that can be issued by the ministry of finance. There exist separate ministries of railways and of civil aviation as well as of transport. The rationale for this has never been questioned. India also has a ministry of youth and sports. There is also a ministry of human resource development ó a term drawn from the field, labour relations ó but nothing that focuses on education. The list of absurdities can be lengthened.

Mr Modi does not need to be a part of this theatre of the absurd. He needs to act as if this past baggage does not exist and build a cabinet as if there were no precedents to follow. He also needs to remember that the process of reform should be quiet and swift. Too many consultations and too many advisors, all well-meaning, only delay the process and allow vested interests within ministries to don their defensive armour. Mr Modi should act now.