Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is believed to be engaged in an exercise to reshuffle his council of ministers - perhaps the last one in the life of this government. This is in keeping with what Dr Singh had indicated earlier this month on his return from his visit to Tokyo and Bangkok. It is likely that some new faces would be inducted into the council of ministers, a few existing ministers would be drafted into the Congress party to help the organisation prepare for the forthcoming general elections and the work load on some ministers would be reduced.
But, with less than 11 months to go for the general elections, if they are to be held on schedule, the question is whether Dr Singh should at all go for a reshuffle of his council of ministers. Or is this something that should be the least of his priorities? Proponents of a ministerial reshuffle offer two arguments.
One, quite a few ministerial vacancies have arisen in the wake of some resignations, notably by Ashwani Kumar, who was the law minister, and Pawan Kumar Bansal, who steered the railway ministry. Both Kumar and Bansal were Cabinet ministers and their portfolios have now been made additional portfolios of two other heavyweight Cabinet ministers - Communications Minister Kapil Sibal and Road Transport and Highways Minister C P Joshi, respectively. Governance might suffer if the ministries of law and railways are reduced to being additional portfolios, it is being argued.
The second reason cited in favour of a reshuffle is even more powerful from the organisational point of view. Elections are round the corner. Some ministers who had been picked in the middle of the government's current term need to be sent back to the Congress party to steer its electoral battles ahead. The prime minister will have to relieve such ministers of their current portfolios for party work. This would call for induction of some more new ministers to fill the vacancies.
Opponents of the reshuffle have equally strong arguments. The two Cabinet ministers who are now holding additional responsibilities are capable of discharging them without any deterioration in governance or the effectiveness of the ministries concerned. Reports suggest that both Sibal and Joshi have taken keen interest in the new portfolios allotted to them. Civil servants in both the ministries note that the new ministries have also taken a few initiatives to improve the functioning of the two ministries.
How serious is the argument about the Congress' organisational need in the run-up to the elections? Well, the party's electoral challenges are serious and the importance of organisational work in the coming months should not be underestimated. But where is the need for the party to get current ministers to take up party work?
There are a host of other young leaders in the party, who are eagerly waiting to get an opportunity to take up the organisational challenge. Now is the opportunity to give them a chance to prove their worth and make a difference. And, of course, there is Rahul Gandhi, the newly elected Congress vice-president, who is to steer the party's electoral journey. Why should he not be given the option of picking his own team from among the workers, instead of dumping veteran ministers on him, who in any case would be reluctant to give up their ministerial comfort?
For Manmohan Singh, too, this would be an opportunity to introduce some drastic administrative reforms at the top. Remember that this was an item on his agenda during his first term as prime minister. But it has been largely ignored and the proposals initially drafted by several official committees have been gathering dust in some cupboard in the Prime Minister's Office. Not much has been heard about civil services reform in the last nine years of the United Progressive Alliance regime.
It is too late now to revive the many sensible recommendations made on beefing up the government's administrative structure. What Dr Singh can certainly do now is to send out a strong signal on administrative reform by using the opportunity for a ministerial reshuffle by streamlining the central ministries.
This might mean abolition of some ministries or merger of quite a few others.
For instance, does the country need a ministry of steel in addition to a ministry of mines?
Both the ministries now have a Cabinet minister each?
Does the country need a separate Cabinet minister for coal?
Why can't the ministry be made part of a combined ministry for energy including petroleum, natural gas and power?
Also, why not bring back the system that Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister had once introduced?
That would mean the creation of an omnibus ministry for transport, with one minister of state each for the railways, road transport and highways, shipping and civil aviation?
Similarly, what does a minister of state for planning do, with Montek Singh Ahluwalia as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission already around to take care of the government's needs for planning for the Centre and the states?
And do we really need a separate Cabinet minister for overseas Indian affairs or can it be made part of the ministry of external affairs?
The list of such redundant ministries that could be either merged or even abolished can be longer. But it is clear that this is an opportunity for the prime minister. Coalition politics may restrain him from undertaking such a reform. But if he manages to bring down the size of his council of ministers from the current strength of 70 (29 Cabinet ministers, 12 ministers of state with independent charge and 29 ministers of state), he would achieve something that will certainly benefit his successor and the overall governance structure at the Centre.