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Shreekant Sambrani: Supernumerary rule

Why does the Indian government have so many senior posts, like vice president, that serve mainly as sinecures?

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was sworn in as of India on August 11, becoming only the second person to grace that office for two terms (was the first). Two days later, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate for the presidency of the United States, announced that Congressman was his choice for vice president. The timing may have been a coincidence, yet the two posts have a clear link. The provided for the office of vice president modelled after its American counterpart, but with a major difference. The US vice president assumes full-fledged presidency in the event of a vacancy in that office due to death, resignation or removal, for the remainder of the presidential term. This has been so ever since John Tyler became president on William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841, the first such instance. He asserted that he was not merely the acting president, which became a convention and was formalised through a constitutional amendment in 1967. The Indian vice president also assumes presidential responsibilities in case of a vacancy, but only for six months within which period a new president must be elected. and became Acting Presidents in 1969 and 1977 respectively on the death of the incumbent presidents.

Our constitution provides only one formal role for the vice president, that of presiding over the upper house of Parliament — a borrowing from the American constitution mandating the vice president to be the president of the Senate. Given the presidential form of government in the US and the clear line of succession, the vice presidency — being “a heartbeat away”, as is often said — is an important office. The incumbent participates in cabinet decisions not so much as a formal requirement but more by convention. President Barack Obama unfailingly refers to his consultations with Vice President Joseph Biden on all major issues. That is as it should be, facilitating continuity of policies as was evident when Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson became presidents part way through their predecessors’ terms.

No such importance is attached the Indian vice president, since the presidency itself is largely a ceremonial office, even though India accords the vice presidency the second place in the order of precedence before the head of the government, the prime minister. Other major countries with ceremonial presidents and powerful premiers such as Germany, Italy and Israel do not have vice presidents at all. India almost certainly was the first country to create such an office within a parliamentary set-up, a precedent followed by many smaller countries — Fiji, Mauritius, Nepal — later on.

Despite the power to nominate members to the Rajya Sabha and various university courts, the general perception of the vice presidency is that it is a plum retirement posting for an eminent personage, for services rendered. The duties, light to begin with, are often delegated to the elected deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha. The perquisites and the prestige are enormous. Moments such as Mr Ansari’s controversial adjournment of the Rajya Sabha in December 2011 or the heckling of Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma forcing him to leave the house in the early 1990s are exceptional.

A logical question to ask would be: why have we created an office that seems purely an add-on? Similar questions arise about other offices as well, notably about several ministries of Central and state governments. For example, despite clear signs, ministerial and administrative Pooh-Bahs in the power sector appear good only for passing the buck, unable to anticipate, leave alone prevent, calamitous grid collapses. The information and broadcasting ministry may have been important when the airwaves were state monopolies and the Films Division was the sole source of visual news. Why do we need a cabinet minister to preside over this long-faded empire, in the days of satellite television and Internet? Do we need a civil aviation minister to “manage” the affairs of a ragamuffin airline long past its maharaja glory? Note the US manages the tasks of controlling wireless and air traffic just through compact regulatory agencies. Ever eager to appear modern, we have those too, in addition to the ministries! We now have a whole army of regulatory authorities, commissions and what have you, almost invariably populated by superannuated officials.

The rapid decline of governance seems accompanied directly by a proliferation of offices and layers of administration. At the height of the statist period, Indira Gandhi functioned with a cabinet of about 15 members and a ministry size of under 50. Cabinets remained relatively manageable even in the United Front and NDA periods. At the last count, UPA II had about 34 cabinet ministers, eight or ten ministers of state with independent charge and many more junior ministers, most of whom complained that they had little to do.

The states are not far behind. Most of them now have unwieldy ministries even when a single party is in power. By contrast, states which enjoyed unimpeachable reputations for good governance in the earlier periods had small ministries. Gujarat functioned with a ministry size in single-digits for the first decade of its existence and has a small ministry even now. Tamil Nadu has had only slightly larger ministries.

The need to place persons in sinecure ministries creates more departments, bureaucratic postings and confusion galore. Education gets divided into primary, secondary, technical, commercial and so on. Welfare becomes health, women’s affairs, child development, weaker sections, etc. Energy and infrastructure issues are handled by at least four ministries each.

The same approach applies to bureaucrats. Supernumerary postings and ranks are created to accommodate either difficult people to be put on the shelf or favoured persons who cannot find the right jobs. Not surprisingly, endless bickering leading to court and tribunal cases and turf battles ensue. The dictionary defines supernumerary as “in excess of, superfluous,” a perfect description of the situation.

In view of the administrative clutter and confusion, not to mention expenses, should we not ask whether we need these offices in the first place? Starting with the vice president, perhaps?


The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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