Not all the PM’s men

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ASHOK MALIKThe much-needed Cabinet reshuffle has taken the line of least resistance and packed the government with compromise choices. Can this lot win the 2014 election?

WHICHEVER WAY one looks at it, it is impossible to come up with a consistent theme to define the Cabinet reshuffle of 12 July 2011. Was this about bringing in younger talent? If so, one got Milind Deora for Murli Deora, in a replay of feudal-era hereditary privilege rather than genuine encouragement of a new generation of self-made politicos.

Old blood in new garb: President Pratibha Patil and PM Manmohan Singh with the newly sworn-in ministers
Old blood in new garb: President Pratibha Patil and PM Manmohan Singh with the newly sworn-in ministers

Shepherded by septuagenarians, the UPA government is clearly sensitive on the age issue. There is reluctance to give its 40-somethings too prominent a role, lest they overshadow Rahul Gandhi. “It is fairly surprising,” says an Opposition MP, “that Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia have not been made ministers of state with independent charge. Jyotiraditya, in particular, is a third-time MP. How long will he wait?”

On the other hand, was this reshuffle about finding ministers appropriate for specific slots, as the replacement of Veerappa Moily with Salman Khurshid in the Law Ministry would suggest? If so, how does one explain Vilasrao Deshmukh, failure as Maharashtra chief minister, failure as Union Minister for Heavy Industries, failure as Minister for Rural Development, being given the Science and Technology Ministry?

As one senior civil servant in Deshmukh’s new ministry puts it, “In recent years, we’ve been spoilt by Prithviraj Chavan and Kapil Sibal, politicians who gave the ministry a certain profile.” Others wonder if the grants the ministry gives to, and the partnerships it enters into with, private entities will be determined by scientific rationale or pay-offs to the new minister.

That’s not all. As recently as during his visit to the United States in June, the finance minister spoke of Indian infrastructure being a $ 1 trillion opportunity in the next seven to 10 years. Every economic review the prime minister presides over mentions the infrastructure deficit. Yet CP Joshi in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and Sushil Shinde in the Ministry of Highways are spectacular misfits.

Alternatively, was this reshuffle about grabbing the immediate challenges to the government by the scruff of the neck? About refurbishing its image? The UPA administration faces two broad threats. First, the economy is beginning to show danger signs. Business confidence is low, inflation and interest rates are high. Lack of reform and regulatory roadblocks have corporate India complaining.

The government’s only response to this has been to move Jairam Ramesh — whom some had nicknamed “Mr No” for the zeal with which he seemed to shoot down proposals — out of the environment ministry and bring in the less activist and more politically astute Jayanthi Natarajan.

All in all, this reshuffle is not so much about what the PM did as about what he didn’t

Second, a certain nastiness and anti-government mood has filtered upwards from the streets to Parliament. The UPA’s answer to this crisis has been naming Rajeev Shukla as junior minister for parliamentary affairs and hoping he can deftly use his excellent personal relations with individual leaders in the BJP.

Well-regarded and popular as they are in Lutyens’ Delhi, are Natarajan and Shukla the solution to the entirety of the UPA’s problems? It is telling these two appointments are probably the only ones aimed at assuaging specific external constituencies. The rest of the reshuffle is an exercise in compromise between 7 Race Course Road and 10 Janpath, if not between competing state-level factions of the Congress.

All in all, this reshuffle is not so much about what the prime minister did as about what he didn’t, or couldn’t. For example, it was announced far in advance of 12 July that the “top four would not be touched”, that there would be no changes in the finance, home, defence and foreign ministries.

At one stage, there was a proposal to bring in a professional economist as finance minister, move Pranab Mukherjee to the Home Ministry and P Chidambaram to External Affairs. Competing perceptions nullified this. Sonia Gandhi was said to be unwilling to experiment with a non-political finance minister and Manmohan Singh’s suggested names — such as those of Montek Singh Ahluwalia — were not to her liking.

As for a strong, go-getting foreign minister, the prime minister himself was not keen on this.

Manmohan is happy with SM Krishna as foreign minister if only because it allows the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to run foreign policy. It is believed the PM will also guide the new environment minister and ensure her ministry’s goals are more in line with his strategic and economic objectives than was the case with Ramesh. Of course, there is also the civil aviation ministry, where an independent but extremely controversial minister was moved out in January so that the PMO — and specifically one officer there — could micro-manage matters.

The examples can go on. There is a risk here of PMO-centralisation, born perhaps of the genuine belief that the prime minister and his lieutenants have to take charge of individual ministries and not trust them with maverick, bloody-minded and in some cases, downright corrupt ministers. This approach, where a boss essentially takes on the tasks of his subordinates and overburdens his inbox, is inherently bureaucratic. Such a mechanism is adequate to run a department in a government office; a Cabinet requires political management. In that respect, the UPA’s failure remains glaring. Paradoxically, this is even more apparent when it comes to other ministries, run by allies like the TMC and the NCP, where the PM has near zero say.

SO WHERE does it all end? Manmohan has said this is the final Cabinet reshuffle before the 2014 election. Is this the team that will lead the Congress to the next polls — or whose administrative excellence and achievements will be the Congress’ claim to re-election? Can AK Antony, good man as he is, actually survive a full term as defence minister doing the closest approximation of absolutely nothing?

Compared to the apology of a reshuffle in January 2011, when many portfolios were changed but there was no courage to actually sack infamous ministers, the July effort may seem bold. Even so, it falls short of the expansive reshuffle the PM had promised.

The argument made is that there is not enough talent in the Congress, the UPA and the political system. This is decidedly specious. Every Cabinetmaking exercise is a compromise between politicians who are grassroots stalwarts but incompetent administrators, and technocratic lateral entrants. Even a Jairam Ramesh is an example of the latter. Has the PM truly exhausted the potential of this symbiosis?

What next? Through the summer the PMO has put out stories that Manmohan will act decisively and soon, will unfurl a slew of reformist policies to change the headlines, will be given functional autonomy by his party. If the reshuffle is an indication, this isn’t happening.

Indeed, there is already queasiness about an inevitable epilogue. Two Cabinet berths remain in wait for the DMK. However, in case M Karunanidhi’s 18 MPs walk away, the UPAwould need to embrace the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Rashtriya Janata Dal even tighter. That would potentially mean bringing in Ajit Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav as Cabinet ministers. So much for a new, whitewashed Manmohan ministry!

Ashok Malik is a senior journalist. 
malikashok@gmail.com

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