The British follow a shadow Cabinet system. The principal opposition party asks its leading lights to focus on specific ministries; these become the party's lead spokespersons on the economy, trade and industry, health, education, the environment and other subjects of parliamentary debate. If power changes hands following elections, the new party in office has on hand people with considerable knowledge of the key portfolios; these usually take charge of the relevant ministries. Subject knowledge is important in a modern economy. India's political parties have never adopted this practice. It could be that one party had a virtual monopoly on government for so long that there was no felt need for a shadow Cabinet in the opposition ranks. However, the two principal parties have now been switching roles between the government and the Opposition for a couple of decades, and it is time someone tested whether the practice can be made to work.
If the Bharatiya Janata Party had adopted it over the last decade, the country would not be in the position where it finds itself, with no one having a clue as to who will take charge of the handful of key portfolios. Will the all-important finance portfolio go to Arun Jaitley or Yashwant Sinha (who is no longer a parliamentarian), or an econocrat, or someone else? It is not a job for everyone, since expectations are high, the constraints are many, and what is needed is good understanding of which levers to be used, how and when - in short, skilful management. No one is born to the job; to do it well, some knowledge has to be acquired, and learning on the job could be costly. On another front, the country faces serious security challenges and has underprepared armed forces. Jaswant Singh had some understanding of defence issues, but who is to take his place? If such questions had been answered through a shadow Cabinet system, Narendra Modi would have found it easier today to form a Cabinet instead of juggling with square pegs and round holes.
It could be argued that ministers have civil servants and subject experts to advise them; what they have to do is exercise intelligent judgement while formulating policy, bearing political factors in mind. This is of course true, but modern economies are more complex than before and the haloed idea of the all-purpose generalist needs to be buried when it comes to sectors that are inherently complex. Nor should the argument be taken to the other extreme, to say, for instance, that the finance ministry should be headed only by an economist or the defence ministry by a former general. The case being made out is for knowledge that aids good judgement, helps a minister ask the right questions and decide which experts to listen to. In the case of the economy, should it be Arvind Panagariya or Subramanian Swamy?
What the country does not want is a repeat of its experience of telecom, which is an area full of technical and other complexity as well as fearsome lobbying - and where successive ministers have embroiled themselves in controversy and taken questionable decisions. Indeed, the telecom regulatory body too has been headed by generalist administrators. At the end of it all, the country still has a sub-optimal policy regime.