Has the reshuffle come too late?

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The Young Turks have been elevated in the reshuffle. But has the change come too late?

Ashok Malik
Ashok Malik, Contributing Editor

GIVEN THE demography of Indian politics, the energy and potential legacy of a government can be measured in terms of how quickly and effectively it empowers serious politicians in the 50-65 years age bracket. There is a reason for this. At some stage in the five-year term, those 70 or 75 and above are going to tire, looking to a sinecure or to retirement. Those 50 and below are simply too young and inexperienced in the context of Indian politics to be taken seriously.

It is those between 50 and 65 who are practised in politics and possibly governance, as well as ambitious and hungry for a stint beyond the next election. Coming back to power, and tailoring policies and political symbolism in a manner that will appeal to a variety of stakeholders — including their voters — is what motivates this cohort. Pure self-interest drives its period in office. On some occasions, it is enlightened self-interest and benefits both the country and the individual minister. This may sound cynical and niggardly but frankly it is how politics works.

How does one apply this framework to the Cabinet expansion and reshuffle Prime Minister Manmohan Singh executed on 28 October? For the first time in eight years of UPA raj, hard responsibility has moved to those ministers who are younger than the Arjun Singh generation and older than the Rahul Gandhi generation; those who don’t have the satisfaction of a past to make them smug, or the luxury of age to not need to act decisively. The best example of this shift would come in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). At 59, Salman Khurshid is a massive 21 years younger than his predecessor, SM Krishna.

It is possible that Khurshid may fail as foreign minister; that is irrelevant. The point is he is aware the cost of failure will be very high for him. Since he contemplates a future in public life beyond 2014, he will push himself to succeed. This logic cannot motivate a politician who is 80, has been minister and chief minister for decades and has few hopes of promotion or plans of contesting another election.

Indeed, pondering over the foreign ministers the UPA has had in its eight years in office — K Natwar Singh (born 1931), Pranab Mukherjee (1935) and Krishna (1932) — it is worth asking why Khurshid wasn’t considered for the job in 2004 itself. What qualities does he have in 2012 that he lacked back then? He had served as minister of state in the MEA in the previous Congress government (1991-96) and was fairly suited for an elevation after eight years in the Opposition.

If the UPA regime finds itself in a quandary today, it is because of its bets on those of the wrong generation, or those with the wrong skills. Arjun Singh was too caught up in pointless debates about history textbooks to bother with education reform and supply-side augmentation, a task his successor in the HRD ministry, Kapil Sibal, also left untouched. By the final year of a distinguished ministerial career, Mukherjee was too jaded to care about business sentiment. His last Budget (2012) sent the sort of negative signals a more alive politician — even a younger Mukherjee — would have pre-empted.

Of the prominent ministers of state from the PV Narasimha Rao prime ministry — those who should have formed the sheet-anchor of the two UPA governments — only P Chidambaram, Kamal Nath (in 2004-09) and now Khurshid have been trusted with front-ranking ministries. If Nath has finally been made parliamentary affairs minister, it is a belated acknowledgement of his political acumen and cross-party network. He should have been a natural trouble-shooter for the government in the challenging period after 2009 and an obvious choice for the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs. Instead he was marginalised.

The reshuffle has given independent responsibilities to a clutch of ministers in their 40s or even 30s (Sachin Pilot is 35). Yet one cannot but feel sympathy for the generation just above them. In grudgingly giving them a bigger role, the Congress has taken a decision that was long overdue. It is not too little; considering the interval till the general election, however, it may be too late.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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