20 July 2017

Re-size cabinet to specified subjects in the national interest

Elections are fought over all kinds of issues.  The winners typically secure the rights to interpret mandate.  “This election was about A, B, C or D,” they would say and often give their own interpretation of A, B, C and D, amending the same as per prerogatives of the particular political moment.  

If you were to ask 10 random people what would be the key issue in 2020 would be, you would get more than a single answer, most likely.  Give the same 10 people a list of ten key issues and ask them to pick three and you would probably get many combinations.  Theoretically, if one were to conduct a survey of a decent sample of the electorate, it is possible to figure out what could reasonably be expected to capture the imagination of the voter. In other words, the issue that matters most to the majority or the set of issues that get their goat, so to say.    Put it all in one sentence and bingo!  

So it’s not about ideology, the commitment to doing the right thing, designing the ideal society etc., etc.  It is typically about capturing (or retaining) power.  They won’t tell you that, though.  They will boil it down to something that sounds nice and makes you feel good.  Like dharmista samaajaya (which J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP translated as ‘A just and free society’) or yahapalanaya (Good governance).  Sure, the wheels come off sooner rather than later, but hey, that does not worry the winners because the primary objective has been achieved.  Yes, winning.  

What is so attractive about power, one might ask.  Well, it could be ego; some people like to feel important.  They might get their kicks ordering people around, altering structures, changing processes etc., never mind if it’s for the good or bad, whether it is sustainable or not.  Then there’s the profit motive.   

There’s bucks in politics and we need not labour the point.  

Good governance was meant to correct system-flaws and thereby checkmate those who are in politics for profit.  The Yahapaalanists, it is abundantly clear now, were never interested in yahapaalanaya and have demonstrated that they are not even capable of palanaya (governance), forget the yaha (good) of it.  The generous view would be that they had the heart in the right place but just don’t have the head for such things.  Maybe they knew the word but didn’t know what it meant.  At any rate, we can safely conclude that the word and the idea was not what mattered to the majority in January 2015, but the need to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

This does not mean that we don’t need yahapalanaya (the concept, that is, and not the political formation that claimed copyrights to the term and eventually turned it into a cuss word).  it does not mean that we must continue to suffer egotists and racketeers.  We need good (or at least ‘better’) governance.  And we need to reduce drastically the size of the cabinet.  

Cabinet-size was an issue.  It was always an issue.  Why is it an issue?  Well, the arguments against bloated cabinets has mostly been about the burden on the taxpayer, but it is also about inefficiency flowing from redundancy, lack of clarity and the compromising of streamlining.  Again, we need not labour the point beyond saying ‘think “external affairs” and “Development Lotteries Board”.’  

There is also the problem of ‘executive feel’ if you want to call it that.  We have a political culture where even a member of a local government body believes he or she has executive power.  Parliamentarians see themselves not as lawmakers but as executors.  Just imagine how ministers see themselves!  This is why crossovers are about portfolios.  This is why those clamoring for ministerial posts have argued that regions (provinces and districts), castes, religious affiliation, political parties (in the case of a coalition) and ethnicities etc should be represented in cabinet! Yes, ‘gender’ doesn’t figure as prominently in post-election agitation for portfolios.  

These are political realities.  The logic of parliamentary arithmetic counts, we are told.  A majority has to be cobbled together, it is argued by way of explaining bloated cabinets and institutional distribution that defies all logic.  

So, yes, there is sense in the call for constitutional amendment to set a ceiling on the number of cabinet portfolios.  The 19th had the words but had additional words that made the relevant words irrelevant; the ‘additional words’ being ‘national government’.  What was meant to be limited to 30 is now over 50.  The ceiling was removed, in effect.  

To get back to the issue of ‘election issues,’ if cabinet size and all the attendant ills were to be revisited (as they should) then we have to bring back the discussion on limits.  But would that be enough, is the question that also needs to be asked.  The answer is ‘no’.  What can effectively make parliament an uninviting place for would-be racketeers and people with inflated egos would be to legislate a specific cabinet-size and most importantly to name the relevant subjects.  

In May 2014, Narendra Singh Modi named a 23-member cabinet, the smallest in India since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 21 member cabinet of 1998.  The first cabinet of independent Ceylon had 18 members.  Theoretically, some of the subjects of that cabinet (and of course the Indian cabinet of Prime Minister Modi) could be collapsed.  It is possible to reduce the number to 10 or even less.  

What would this do?  It would mean (assuming there are, let’s say, just 10 ministries) that 214 MPs in Parliament would have no portfolios and would be forced to do what they are supposed to do (on paper): legislate.  No ministries, no special budgetary allocations for individual MPs, and we won’t have legislators thinking and acting as executives.  Of course all candidates would aspire (given the current political culture and the big egos that are unfortunately inevitable appendages of candidates) to become cabinet ministers if the particular party wins the election, but we can reasonably expect the overall number to decline over time.  Legislative competence or potential could become a factor in an election once again.  

Does all this resonate with the electorate?  If not, could the electorate be convinced of the importance of a limited cabinet with specific subjects written into the constitution?  Would it be a hard sell?  We don’t know.  However, if elections, democracy and politics is about a conversation and about ideas and the testing of their worth, then perhaps it is not something to be ignored.  
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.


Anonymous said...

This is terrible but I was watching a video and I thought of you. Check it out on google :"Slavoj Zizek: Behind every ethnic cleansing there is a poet." Not sure what to say, I hope you are doing well and may all your prescriptions be humanitarian.

Malinda Words said...

It's a crass generalization.