August 24, 2017 02:00 AM NPT
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba seems to have this almost Trumpian knack of breaking records—good, bad or downright ugly, it does not matter. When he became prime minister for the first time in 1995, he had inducted 48 ministers into his cabinet. This record stood till 2011, when Baburam Bhattarai included 49 ministers. Now, with a cabinet size of 50, Debua has again reclaimed the record from Bhattarai. Since Deuba still holds four ministerial portfolios, which he has retained in the hope of getting even more parties to join his government, the cabinet is sure to further expand. Eventually, we may end up with as many as 60 ministers. The ruling Congress-Maoist coalition argues that, technically, they are not in violation of the constitution. The constitution caps the cabinet-size at 25, but this provision is applicable only after the holding of the first federal elections and allows the government to appoint any number of ministers by stepping on ‘transitional provisions’. The thinking among the ruling parties seems to be that they will expand their patronage and financial networks while they still can.
They do great disservice to the country. The induction of 23 new state ministers on Sunday and Tuesday is expected to cost the national exchequer an additional Rs 100 million a month. It is a shame that at a time of national emergency, the prime minister is more worried about shoring up his cabinet than in helping flood victims. Perhaps realizing just how unpopular this move would be, he chose to expand his cabinet a day before heading off on a five-day state visit to India. Besides using up vital funds, formation of such a jumbo cabinet also sets a troubling precedent. It is true that the new constitution caps cabinet size to 25. But given the nature of our political system, future elections are sure to result in more coalition governments and they too will be tempted to ensure self-survival via portfolio distribution. If the constitution proves to be a hurdle, they can always amend it. Which is why formation of jumbo cabinets by successive governments, irrespective of the parties in power, is troubling. Since the likes of Sher Bahadur Deuba, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and KP Sharma Oli will continue to control the reins of the government in the foreseeable future, it is hard to see them easily abandoning their profligate ways.
With the government at the center openly flouting norms of good governance, future provincial governments too will start taking liberties during cabinet formation. The Kashi Raj Dahal-led Administrative Reform Recommendation Committee had in 2014 suggested that the size of federal cabinet be capped at 18 and that of provincial cabinet at 12. The constitution already allows more cabinet-level appointments: 25 at the federal level and 20 percent of total strength of provincial assembly at the provincial level. Ominously, the major parties are unhappy with even these expansive constitutional provisions. One of the big criticisms of federalism when it was being debated in the lead-up to constitution promulgation was that it could prove to be financially unviable. The profligate ways of our political parties is vindicating that fear. By the looks of things, the federal agenda will be put under severe strain even before it properly takes root.