Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just reshuffled his council of ministers for the first time in his second term in office. The reshuffle came in the immediate background of mounting corruption scandals and rising inflation. There was also a growing impression that some of his ministers were either incompetent or disinterested in their assigned jobs. But then various acts of omission and commission on the part of his ministerial colleagues constituted only one aspect of his exercise. His other important considerations should have been ensuring a balancing act vis a vis his alliance partners and improving the electoral prospects of his Congress party in the forthcoming assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal , Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One could also argue that the reshuffling exercise was an opportunity for the Prime Minister, and this is what every Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy does under normal circumstances, to review the cultural, religious, gender and provincial factors as reflected in his ministry.
Considering all this, how has the reshuffle been? “Uninspiring” is my answer. First and foremost, the very fact that ministers in charge of some vital economic/infrastructural ministries have changed their portfolios means that the Prime Minister was not happy with their performance. If that is the case, some of them should have been dropped. But that has not happened. No minister has lost his or her job. They have been asked to move from one department to another. In fact, some of them could say that they have been “promoted” to ministries that have more money-making potentials.
Secondly, the exercise does not seem to have settled the apparent strains in the alliances of the Congress with the DMK and Trinamul Congress, two vital allies in the coming elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively. Reportedly, these two parties wanted bigger representations. Now we are told that their requests would be considered after the polls. In fact, the DMK has reasons to be all the more hurt since its number of ministers at the Centre has come down, with Manmohan Singh not filling up the slot vacated by the “infamous” erstwhile telecom minister D Raja.
Thirdly, the exercise has not reflected any serious thoughts over the much-talked about youth and gender factors. No so-called young minister has got a cabinet rank at a time when in democracies like the United States and the Great Britain the President and Prime Minister are under 50 years of age. In contrast, take five of our most high-profile ministers. Prime Minister Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Minister SM Krishna are in their late 70s. Defence Minister AK Antony has just turned 70. At 65, Home Minister P Chidambaram is not exactly young. Similarly, there is nothing much to be talked about gender representation in Singh’s cabinet, except the fact that the 30-year-old junior Rural Development Minister Agatha Sangma is his youngest.
Fourthly, despite the latest reshuffle, Singh’s cabinet continues to be highly lopsided as far as regional representation is concerned. Well, given the impending elections, he has been extra sensitive to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Kerala by upgrading some ministers and inducting new faces from these states. But the fact remains that highly important state of Bihar goes unrepresented. Under Manmohan Singh, Himachal Pradesh, which sends only four MPs to Lok Sabha (and the Congress won only one), has two cabinet ministers, equaling the record of Uttar Pradesh, which sends as many as 80 Lok Sabha seats. In fact, till the latest reshuffle, Uttar Pradesh did not have a single cabinet minister in the union cabinet!
It is pertinent in this context to cite the instance of Orissa. In the last general elections, Congress had staged an impressive comeback in the state by securing six out of 21 seats. A party that is really serious in recapturing a major state electorally would have given Orissa a good representation in the central cabinet, given the fact that under the previous NDA regime, there were two cabinet ministers and two ministers of state from Orissa. But what actually happened was that the state got only one minister of state in Srikant Jena (chemical and fertilisers). And what added salt to the injury was the fact that Jena earlier was a full-fledged cabinet minister in the government of India under Prime Ministers Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. So much so that Jena initially refused to join the ministry. He subsequently changed his mind with the reported assurance of the Prime Minister that corrective action would follow. But that has not happened during the latest reshuffle. Jena would now learn to live with the insults heaped on him. One does not know how his electorate and the people of Orissa overall will react to the Congress arrogance (should we say apathy?) in future elections.
In fact, like Jena, the newly inducted Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma has reasons to feel hurt because he, too, was a cabinet minister before. He was communications minister under Gowda and Gujral in between 1996 and 1998. One, of course, could argue under the Congress government, cabinet ministers have to be of really of high caliber and in making Jena and Verma ministers of state, the Congress is giving the message that the calibers of cabinet ministers under the United Front governments of Gowda and Gujral, were not good enough. But then the fact remains that the Congress cannot exactly boast of having a highly talented pool of legislators in the Parliament to select ministers from. Had that not been the case, we would have found more young and women ministers. In fact, recent studies have revealed that most of our young parliamentarians have failed miserably. Their performance both inside and outside the Parliament in raising or initiating new ideas and debates on burning national and international issues has been abysmal. But for their family legacies, most of them would not have earned their present positions.
Of course, there are some more intriguing questions: Under the UPA regime, who selects the ministers? Is there a single selector? If so, what is his latitude of choice? In theory, a Prime Minister has the right to hire and fire ministers. In reality, there are many constraints on his choice. He has to appoint the more influential leaders of his party, he might need to silence rival leaders of his party by including them in government, and he must reward supporters. Singh’s case is all the more difficult since he is just one of the leaders of the Congress which is virtually reduced to a family-fiefdom of the Gandhis. Ask any honest Congress leader and he or she will agree that Singh is third in the hierarchy, the upper two positions being occupied by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. In fact, some will contend whether Singh is even third in hierarchy. Besides, his being a coalition government, Singh has to go by the choices of the heads of the allied parties.
In other words, if the central government continues to be as ineffectual as before the reshuffle, Manmohan Singh cannot be blamed alone.
By Prakash Nanda