The gruelling vetting process of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, currently underway in the US, makes one wonder if India would be better off with such a parliamentary fact-checking mechanism in place, at least for our ministers.
Take for instance the row over our textiles minister Smriti Irani’s educational qualifications.
Irani is viewed as just making a mockery of public accountability after it emerged that she didn’t want the details of her educational qualifications to be made public. The controversy over Irani’s qualifications could have been entirely avoided only if she had furnished consistent details about her education background.
The Indian public could have done without all the fuss had our Election Commission called Irani’s bluff when she filed her affidavit for the 2011 Rajya Sabha election. It would also have been great if the Indian Parliament had some US-style senate hearing to vet our country’s prospective cabinet ministers.
So, why can’t we Indians hold our ministers more accountable?
In the US, the cabinet picks of the incoming president have to be approved by the Senate, or the Upper House, before they could assume office. In the past, there have been cases of president’s picks having been rejected by the Senate due to various reasons, though that is rare. The exhaustive questioning of potential cabinet picks is even aired live, making the whole process as transparent as it can get.
In India, it is a different story altogether.
“In India, the Prime Minister just picks his cabinet colleagues from among elected representatives from his own party and there is no mechanism whatsoever in place to do any background checks,” Dr Jayprakash Narayan, an advisor to previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and former state level legislator told InUth.
“There is nothing in our Constitution that would ensure that the best people get nominated to top cabinet positions. Just look at the cabinet nomination process unfolding in the US. Donald Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson was a former business head. In America, you just have to be viewed as the best person to do the job. It doesn’t matter if you’re elected or not,” said Dr Narayan, who is also the general secretary at Hyderabad-based Foundation for Democratic Reforms (FDR), a think-tank advocating electoral reforms in India.
“In India, on the other hand, you can’t be a minister unless you are an MP.”
“The executive and the legislature in India are too fused. There is no separation of responsibilities,” he said.
Should we have a problem with ministers with no educational background?
Dr Narayan highlights that some of the best leaders India has had over the years didn’t have formal qualifications.
“Indira Gandhi didn’t have a formal degree. But even her critics wouldn’t doubt her strong leadership abilities,” he said.
The electoral reforms advocate said that transparency is what India’s political system needs. He said that his think-tank was in favour of starting a US-style cabinet vetting process in Indian states.
“If we can have a mechanism to thoroughly check the backgrounds of our ministers and even elected representatives in states, it would be a big win for Indian democracy.”
What’s the controversy over Smriti Irani about
At the time of contesting the 2004 national election, Irani had stated in a signed affidavit that her highest educational achievement was having completed a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree from Delhi University’s School of Correspondence. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, however, while contesting the Rajya Sabha election in 2011, claimed that she had just cleared the first part of the three-year Bachelor of Commerce degree.
When an applicant sought records of Irani’s education history under the Right to Information Act, Delhi University’s School of Correspondence reportedly told the Central Information Commission (CIC) the minister had advised them against disclosing her records. The CIC has now asked DU to produce all of Irani’s records on Feb 1o, the date of next hearing.