SOMEONE once said that Ministers of State were “ nobodies” because their only job was to reply to questions in Parliament that did not call for a verbal answer: the “ unstarred” questions which are on paper and whose answers also come written and are merely placed on the table of the house. In the good old days of single party governance and rule by a supreme leader, junior ministers, as they are called, were handed these jobs with a that’s- all- you- deserve attitude.
Most of them took the jobs and spent the next five years doing nothing. There were exceptions of course: as minister of state for Internal Security in the Narasimha Rao government, Rajesh Pilot was the de facto Home Minister and an effective one at that.
Madhavrao Scindia did such an excellent job as junior minister in Railways that his elevation to cabinet status was just a matter of time and he later went on to do commendable work in the Civil Aviation and Communication portfolios. The same alas cannot be said of the sons of these two Congress stars who sadly are no more with us. Sachin Pilot is MoS in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and Jyotidaritya Scindia is the MoS for Commerce and Industry. Both are incredibly gifted young men but unfortunately they are not being used to their full potential.
Sachin and Scindia are just two of the 38 ministers of state, almost all of whom feel they are being shortchanged or not used properly by the prime minister. The Manmohan Singh council of ministers is 78 strong, the largest in the country’s history. There are 33 cabinet ministers including the prime minister; seven MOS hold independent charge who pretty much function as full fledged cabinet ministers and are more or less free to dictate policy in the manner they deem fit. But for the 38 ministers of state, work mostly revolves around inaugurating a youth festival that the senior minister doesn’t have time for, or to be the minister in waiting when the president of Burkina Faso or some such place is on a state visit. This can be frustrating and the juniors have for long jostled for more but forever have been denied.
The problem is confounded in a multi party alliance like the UPA where ministers belong to different parties and the senior has such a vice like grip on the entire ministry that his junior may as well stay back at his palatial bungalow ( yes, they have that at least) in Lutyens Delhi and assist the wife in tending to the kitchen garden. That is why a lot of juniors are pinning much hope on the meeting that Manmohan Singh has convened on January 19 where all 38 junior ministers and seven ministers with independent charge have been invited. This is the first such meet- Sachin Pilot ing during UPA II and I have no doubt that some of the more ebullient juniors will have a lot to tell Manmohan Singh. Don’t be surprised if some of the seniors have already asked their secretaries to invent perfect alibis to deflect all charges and accusations.
But what happens between the two sides is less important than the collapse of some fundamentals that have brought things to such a pass. There is the collapse of collective responsibility and the blame belongs to both. At one end, a Shashi Tharoor comes along and tweets his way through office, making statements that go against established policies. On the other hand, there are ministers with nothing to say. There are ministries in which virtually no work gets done because the senior ministers are mostly absent, politicking in their home states, yet do not hand over even the smallest of responsibilities to their juniors. In this, the DMK and the Trinamool ministers are the worst offenders. Ministerial truancy has attained such heights that only 13 of the 33 senior ministers attended the last Cabinet meeting convened by the prime minister. And if ministers are truant, can MPs be expected to be any different?
That explains why during the last session of Parliament, the Lok Sabha had to be adjourned twice for lack of quorum. There is a lesson in this. Give the committed and efficient junior ministers their due. Make the likes of Sachin and Scindia cabinet ministers. Give them complete charge of their departments. They will deliver. And inspire their seniors and fellow MPs to work harder and similarly deliver.