Debating India

GOVERNMENT

A trimming exercise

Friday 30 July 2004, by BAVADAM*Lyla, CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar , RAJALAKSHMI*T.K., TALUKDAR*Sushanta , TRIPATHI*Purnima S.

State governments comply with the constitutional requirement of limiting the size of their Ministries, but what should have provided an opportunity for Chief Ministers to cleanse their governments of tainted and incompetent Ministers turns out to be an exercise in political manipulation.

in New Delhi

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SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY
Gegong Apang. His government in Arunachal Pradesh became the first casualty of the downsizing.

THE downsizing of Ministries in compliance with the Constitution (97th) Amendment, which limits the size of the Ministry to 15 per cent of the total strength of legislators in the Lower House (or 12 as in the case of smaller States), has turned out to be an exercise in deception, political one-upmanship and manipulation. It has been used either to settle political scores or to put down rivals. Besides, the basic idea behind the pruning - that is, reducing wasteful government expenditure and ending the practice of offering berths in the Ministry to lure Members of the Legislative Assembly has been largely defeated because most of the Ministers who were dropped in various States have been given or are in the process of getting equally lucrative positions as Chairmen of various corporations\councils or, as in the case of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, as parliamentary secretaries.

While the exercise, which became effective on July 7, has been completed without damage to the party in power in the majority of the States, the process claimed its first victim in the politically volatile northeastern region: the Arunachal Pradesh government. Interestingly, the northeastern Ministries were the flabbiest of all. Of the 250-odd Ministers to be dropped across the country, more than half belonged to this region. No wonder the scale of resentment there has been of an equally large proportion.

Significantly, in Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav was required to drop 31 Ministers from his 88-member Council, the exercise went off smoothly. This was possible because Mulayam Singh did not antagonise anyone. Among those dropped, two Cabinet Ministers (Reoti Raman Singh and Bhagwati Singh) have since been elected to Parliament. The rest were Ministers of State, whom Mulayam Singh rehabilitated immediately as Chairmen of various corporations. Besides, he did not disturb the Ministers belonging to his alliance partner, the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

Bihar too managed to achieve the feat with equal ease, thanks to Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Laloo Prasad Yadav’s new-found clout at the Centre and rapport with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Laloo Prasad’s firm hold over the situation was evident from the fact that the influential Excise Minister, Sivanand Tiwari, who was once considered his right-hand man, could do nothing but raise a cry when he was dropped along with 16 others.

In the 243-member Bihar Assembly, the strength of the Ministry was to be 53. Out of the 17 members dropped, nine belong to the RJD, six to the Congress and two are independents. Laloo Prasad tactically quelled any rebellion with promises of lucrative posts in corporations or the ticket in the Assembly elections, due early next year.

In Jharkhand, the BJP-led Arjun Munda government had to contend with resentment from its alliance partner, the Janata Dal (United). This could cost the party dearly in the Assembly elections in neighbouring Bihar. But Munda’s task was made easier for the time being because he had the full support of the JD(U)’s central leadership, enabling him to drop all the five JD(U) Ministers. The Jharkhand Assembly has a total strength of 82, and the Ministry, as per law, had to be downsized from 25 to 12.

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RITU RAJ KONWAR
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi addressing the press in Guwahati after reducing the size of his Ministry on July 7.

In Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, both ruled by the Congress, problems have cropped up and are likely to continue, causing damage to the party’s prospects in the next elections. While in Himachal Pradesh the problem is of regional imbalance, in Punjab it is political dissidence. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had to grapple with the kind of dissidence he has been facing for sometime from his deputy, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who is likely to lose the post and remain content with a Cabinet rank. Amarinder Singh, largely in control of the situation, managed to drop eight Ministers without much problem, with the promise of the posts of parliamentary secretaries to the suitable ones.

In Punjab, the basic criterion for allotting the ticket in the Lok Sabha elections was performance and on this basis Amarinder Singh managed to get rid of those who were aligned with the Bhattal camp. Bhattal herself may not have much choice now, but given her political ambitions she is not likely to lie low for long.

In Himachal Pradesh, where Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh was given a free hand to carry out the exercise of downsizing the Ministry from 16 to 12, the problem is not so much political as regional. While crucial areas such as Kangra and Hamirpur remain under-represented, Shimla, as before, is over-represented. This fact could provide the BJP a handle to discredit the government. Of the four Ministers who were dropped, Transport Minister Chander Kumar won from Kangra defeating former Chief Minister Shanta Kumar. Of the rest, Chandresh Kumari and Brij Bihari Lal Butel belong to the Virbhadra faction and Vijay Singh Mankotia, is reportedly close to Pradesh Congress Committee chief Vidya Stokes, They are likely to be compensated with other positions.

Maharashtra was the State with a high potential for trouble but the fact that Assembly elections are due in a few months made Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s task that much easier. First, the Ministers do not have such a big stake now and secondly, they have all been promised suitable compensation. Shinde dropped four Cabinet Ministers and 18 Ministers of State from his 65-member Council - eight independents and seven each from the two main coalition partners, Shinde’s Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Among the surprises of the day was the elevation of five Ministers of State (three from the NCP and two from the Congress) to Cabinet rank. The independent Ministers who were dropped are said to have brokered a deal. The arrangement is that neither the Congress nor the NCP will put up candidates in the constituencies they contest, they will be reinstated if the combine returns to power, and if they choose not to contest as independents and opt to join either party, they will be guaranteed the party ticket.

Interestingly, the Dalit factor, so far ignored by the combine, played a key role in the downsizing exercise. There is a conscious attempt to project a pro-Dalit image. Vimal Mundada of the NCP, a Dalit, was rewarded with Cabinet rank for her contribution to the NCP victory in the Beed seat in the Lok Sabha elections. In Maharashtra, where the Cabinet size was brought down to 43 from 65, the key criterion was apparently performance during the Lok Sabha elections, although the Congress preferred to downplay it.

IN the vexed northeastern region, the exercise fuelled rebellion across parties. The 60-member Arunachal Pradesh Assembly was dissolved on July 6 after the size of the Ministry was reduced from 41 to the stipulated 12. Twenty-one Ministers resigned from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led United Democratic Front government. The 29 Ministers who were dropped immediately shifted their loyalty to the Congress, prompting Chief Minister Gegong Apang to recommend hastily the dissolution of the Assembly to Governor V.C. Pande. The Governor accepted the recommendation and dissolved the House and asked Apang to ontinue in office until the new Assembly was formed. But following a demonstration by members of the Opposition Congress and the breakaway faction of the UDF in front of the Raj Bhavan demanding imposition of Article 356 to ensure a "free and fair election", he recommended imposition of President’s Rule. The Assembly elections are scheduled for October.

The Apang-led government, the first of the BJP in the northeastern region, had come into being on August 3, 2003, after the Mukut Mithi-led Congress Ministry was reduced to a minority when 31 of the 58 Congress MLAs, including 17 Ministers, announced their resignation. The breakaway MLAs formed a separate legislative group, the Congress(D) led by Kameng Dolo. They then formed the UDF and elected Gegong Apang as their leader. Later the group joined the BJP.

V. Satish, the BJP leader in charge of the region, does not consider the dissolution of the Assembly a big loss for the party as it is " firmly entrenched in the State now". He said that with a 29 per cent vote share in the State, the BJP had arrived in the region. "The political outcome needs to be assessed," he said.

In Assam, the government of Tarun Gogoi is rocked by dharnas and bandhs by resentful supporters of the dropped Ministers. Announcing the pruning of his 35-member Ministry to 19, Gogoi maintained that he was dropping the Ministers under "the compulsion of the Congress high command" and that it was not his decision.

Supporters of Agriculture Minister Ardhendu Kumar Dey and Public Works Minister Sarat Barkatoki staged rail and road blockades at various places, disrupting normal life. Gogoi’s warning of strict action staved off a crisis.

In view of the volatile situation, the Chief Minister has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underlining the need for necessary amendments to the Constitution to allow States like Assam to have 20 per cent of the total number of legislators in the Ministry in order to ensure representation to all the regions of the State.

The 33-member Okram Ibobi Singh Ministry in Manipur was downsized to 12. The Congress, which heads the Secular Progressive Front, retained 10 Ministers and two of its coalition partner, the Communist Party of India (CPI). Another ally, the Manipur State Congress Party, has not been accommodated.

In the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-ruled Tripura, six Ministers were required to be dropped. The CPI(M) dropped five of its Ministers and asked its front partner, the CPI, to withdraw its lone Minister, Manindra Reang. The latter part of the exercise created a rift between the two allies. The CPI accused the CPI(M) of using pressure tactics and initially refused to withdraw Reang, saying that the decision was against the spirit of coalition politics. Reang later tendered his resignation.

In Meghalaya, where the Ministry’s size had to be reduced to 12 from 40, Chief Minister D.D. Lapang managed to keep the Congress’ alliance with the regional parties intact by retaining one Minister from each of the three regional parties, the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Meghalaya Democratic Party (MDP) and the Khun Hyentrip National Awakening Movement (KHNAM).

However, former Chief Minister and the lone representative of the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), F.A. Khonglam, had to go. He has been assured the post of Chairman of the Meghalaya State Planning Board. Meghalaya, incidentally, was the only State in the region to have formed a core group of the political affairs committee (PAC) of the Congress for wider consultations with the constituents of the ruling Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) before finalising the list of 11 Ministers to be retained. Lapang had earlier insisted that Assemblies with a strength of 60 seats should have at least 20 Ministers.

Similarly, Nagaland too, where the size of the Ministry was slashed to 12 from 43, had sought exemption from the Centre on the grounds of regional and tribal representation.

The request, which had been rejected by the previous National Democratic Alliance government, was turned down by the present United Progressive Alliance government. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio had insisted that the mandatory downsizing would do immense harm to the multiplicity of tribes in a State like Nagaland.

Apart from the problem of ensuring the representation of various tribes in the Ministry, Rio had cited the compulsion of coalition politics. The 43-member Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government consisted of 30 members of the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF), seven of the BJP, one JD(U) member, and one Samata Party member and four independents. The downsized Ministry has nine NPF and two BJP members and one independent.

In Mizoram, where three Ministers were dropped, the only surprise was the exclusion of Excise Minister P.P. Thawlla of the Mara Democratic Front (MDF), whose support had ensured the formation of the Zoramthanga government. The Chief Minister’s task was made easy by the resignation of three Ministers: Prisons Minister K. Vanlalauva and Cooperation Minister C. Lalrinsanga belonging to Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front (MNF) and Thawlla. In the 40-member House, Zoramthanga had only 19 MLAs after the Assembly elections in November last year. It was Thawlla’s support that enabled government formation. But the MNF won the byelection to Kolasib, making Thawlla redundant.

In Chhattisgarh, where five Ministers were dropped, the exercise was effortless. The surprise element, however, was the sacking of the lone Sikh representative, Rajinder Pal Singh Bhatia. But as one BJP leader put it, Bhatia could be sacrificed because "Sikhs do not form a major vote bank" as they are scattered across the State.

Unfortunately, what should have provided an opportunity for Chief Ministers to cleanse their governments by getting rid of tainted and incompetent Ministers was turned into an occasion of political manipulation.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

- With inputs from Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati, Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai, Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata and T.K. Rajalakshmi.

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