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Cutting down: Size of government

May 16, 2013

THE elections are, more or less, over. The voters have done their bit and now the onus of providing good governance and bringing the country out of the economic morass largely lies on the shoulders of the PML-N, which will be the majority party in the National Assembly. The first task is the formation of an effective cabinet at the centre. The 18th Amendment limits the size of the federal cabinet in view of the transfer of various ministries and functions to the provinces, and the PML-N, which is poised to form a government at the centre, will be under immense pressure to accommodate a big number of ‘heavyweights’ who have returned to the Assembly on its ticket. The PML-N will also have to accommodate the coalition partners whom it is wooing from the smaller provinces in order to give a ‘federal’ colour to the government. This is not the only challenge. The party will need to cut down on the number of ministries by merging the ones that have overlapping or similar functions to curtail the spread of an unwieldy government and reduce unnecessary expenditure. A leaner government certainly is much more efficient and effective.

The heavy mandate the PML-N has secured in the landmark election means that the parties or individuals joining it will have little power to go against the Sharif government. Unlike the previous PPP government which, throughout its tenure, had the sword of Damocles hanging over its head, the PML-N is much better placed to implement reforms to improve governance. But the experience of the PML-N government in Punjab during the last five years shows that its leadership can be tempted into rewarding its favourites. While former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif kept the size of his cabinet very small, he had set up numerous task forces with their heads and members enjoying all the privileges a minister was entitled to. Such ‘roses’ by other names must not be allowed to bloom, the cabinet must be kept small and the delegation of power to the ministers ensured.

As if this task were not challenging enough, the centre will also have to sort out pending issues with the provinces in light of the 18th Amendment. Centralisation of decision-making and circumvention of the Constitution cannot be allowed if the process of devolution is to be continued. It is a process the parties in the last parliament, the PML-N prominent among them, agreed to, and one that must be implemented if governance is to improve.