Last month, in a bid to break with past practice, the new Narendra Modi government abolished all the Group of Ministers (GoM) and Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) because it said there was need “for greater accountability and empowerment” for the government as such.
The reason, probably, was that the previous UPA government had run riot with the GoM and EGoM concept and, what was once seen as a tool for quick decision-making, became, instead, a means of slowing it down, if not choking it up completely.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi feels that he does not need the GoM and EGoM format because he does not head a coalition government. Pic/PTI
During the UPA-I and II, there had been scores of GoMs and EGoMs, most of them headed by Pranab Mukherjee, A K Antony, P Chidambaram and Sharad Pawar. The EGoMs, in particular, were given with the authority to take decisions, making subsequent discussion and approval by any cabinet committee, presided over by the prime minister, a mere formality.
They were a useful device and helped decide many contentious issues, including the plan for restructuring Air India, the amendments to strengthen India’s anti-rape laws following the Delhi gang rape in 2012, the allocation and pricing of natural gas, and so on. However, towards the end of the UPA tenure, they became a means of postponing decisions.
Ironically, the GoM innovation was pioneered by the NDA-I government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Among the more successful uses of the format was the report on “Reforming the National Security System” released in May 2001 by a GoM headed by L K Advani, and comprising External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandes and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.
This led to the first comprehensive bid to reform the national security system since the 1960s. Its recommendations were based on the work of four Task Forces, on Intelligence, Internal Security, Border Management and Defence.
The great advantage of the process was that the report passed swiftly through the Cabinet Committee on Security, since it was drafted by three of its four members, the fourth being Prime Minister Vajpayee. In contrast, a report by a specialist Task Force headed by Naresh Chandra in 2012 has gotten lost into the miasma that was the UPA-II government.
Prime Minister Modi should, perhaps, ignore the UPA experience and draw a lesson from the experience of the country whose decision-making prowess he so admires. Recently, for the first time, the Chinese media revealed that there were at least 18 “leading small groups” in their system, which are the equivalent of our EGoMs, and party boss and President Xi Jinping heads four of them.
China watchers have pointed out that this concept of “leading small groups” have been a feature of the Communist Party’s governance of China. Such groups have existed since the mid-1950s, and are featured in the work of the party, the government and the military.
There were some surprises when it was revealed Xi presided over the Leading Small Group for Financial and Economic Affairs and Premier Li Keqiang was the deputy leader, and that the group which also had Vice Premiers Zhang Gaoli (also a Politburo member), Liu Yandong, Wang Yang and Ma Kai; the director of the Central Policy Research Center, Wang Huning; the director of the party’s General Office, Li Zhanshu; central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan; the ministers of water, housing, land resources, and industry and information technology; and representatives from foreign affairs and the military. Till now, many believed that dealing with the economy was the primary responsibility of the prime minister.
The Third Plenum held last year led to the creation of three more leading small groups which are headed by Xi — one on Internet network security and information technology, the Central Military Commission’s leading group for deepening reform on national defence and army leadership, and the leading group for comprehensively deepening reform. Of course, Xi is also the head of the National Security Commission which was set up earlier this year.
An example of how this works is evidenced by the fact that the key foreign policy player in China is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), which is chaired by Xi and comprises people like State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who is the special representative for talks on the border issue with India. Wang Yi, the foreign minister, is not a member of this group, whose composition is secret, but it almost certainly includes senior PLA generals and security officials.
All this tells us a great deal about how China is governed and the unprecedented consolidation of authority in the hands of Xi Jinping. Prime Minister Narendra Modi obviously feels that he does not need the GoM and EGoM format because he does not head a coalition government. Unstated is the reality that Modi is clearly the numero uno in the government, and that his word will prevail without much difficulty in the various Cabinet Committees.
But, the Chinese experience points to the usefulness of institutionalised coordination groups within government systems to cut through bureaucratic red-tape that inevitably accumulates in systems of countries as big and complex and China and India.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi