Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just reshuffled his council of ministers for the second time in his second term in office. He also announced that it was last such exercise before the general elections in 2014, though the Congress party, realising the dangers, is now giving different interpretations of the statement. Singh’s latest exercise may not necessarily be the last of its kind, but it saw seven ministers being kicked out and eight new faces being brought in. But, is it the team that the Prime Minister really wanted? Or has he compromised a lot? “No” is the answer to the first question and “Yes” is the answer to the second question. The whole exercise seems to be inept. It is doubtful if it will change perceptions of either his personal authority or his administration as a whole.
The Prime Minister really wanted substantial changes in his council of ministers. After all, his government’s image has not been inspiring of late, given the never-ending corruption allegations it is beset by. The inflation continues to be alarming. Prices of food items and essential commodities keep on rising, hurting India’s middle class, not to speak of the ordinary people. What is worse, the rosy pictures that were drawn of the rising Indian economy are turning pale. India is no longer the favourite destination of the global capital. In fact, investors have started taking away their money from India. What all this means is that all the economic ministries, responsible for creating and furthering national wealth, are not exactly performing.
Similarly, on the security front, the government seems to be depending on the external powers to keep the country secure. The way our external affairs minister and defence minister ask the United States to keep a tab on Pakistan and China is unbecoming of a country that is supposed to be a major global power. Important decisions in the ministry of defence keep pending. The internal security remains fragile. Let alone the growing Maoist menace, the latest attacks on Mumbai prove once again that things have not changed much since the 2008- attacks on the country’s financial capital. The terror-theory of the ruling Congress, propounded by none other than “the very special” party general secretary Digvijay Singh, that the country has been free from terrorist incidents ever since the “saffron terrorists” have been on the run, meaning thereby that it is the Hindus who have been behind most of the terror attacks, needs an updating.
Given this background, the latest cabinet reshuffle has exposed the Prime Minister’s helplessness. Speculations that he wanted new faces in the finance, home, defence and external affairs ministries and some non-political specialists such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia and C Ragarajan in key economic portfolios have been belied. Similarly, 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.
Of course, Manmohan Singh cannot afford to behave like a true Prime Minister who has got the “prerogative” of selecting the members of his cabinet the way he likes. For one, his is a coalition government. He has to make necessary compromises. He has to bear with the likes of Sharad Pawar who have too many non-government jobs in their hands but insist on keeping crucial portfolios as ministers. For another, and this is more important, Manmohan Singh’s hands are not even free in dealing with ministers belonging to his own Congress party. Here, he has to bow to the wishes of Sonia Gandhi, the party president.
I am not sure whether the whispers in the political corridor that the Prime Minister is now in a combative mood vis-à-vis Sonia Gandhi, something even a senior political journalist has hinted at in her analysis in this issue of our magazine, have any basis. But if it is so, then Singh seems to be losing out. As pointed out above, one of the main problems with this government is that it is now badly hampered in adding to, even retaining, national wealth. But Sonia Gandhi’s main obsession all these years has been the mindless distribution of the wealth on the advice of her “jholawallah” colleagues in the so-called National Advisory Council, even if the country’s economy is not well prepared for most of these distributions such as increasing subsidies and guaranteed jobs and wages under rural employment projects. That the real needy do not get all of them, thanks to the corrupt governance, is altogether a different story.
Sonia’s aim is to fetch votes for the party through these measures. She is not concerned about how the wealth she is distributing is to be generated through competent governance. That headache is exclusively Manmohan Singh’s. No wonder why in the latest reshuffle, Sonia-loyalist Jairam Ramesh has got a promotion as cabinet minister and that too in charge of the rural development ministry, whose annual budget is next only to that of the ministry of defence. If his past record as environment minister is any indication, Ramesh simply does not care about the Prime Minister; he directly reports to Sonia Gandhi. And as expected, within 24 hours of taking over as rural development minister, Ramesh has endorsed fully the Sonia-led National Advisory Council’s draft bill on land-acquisition, some provisions of which were problematic so far for the government.
Lack of freedom in choosing colleagues from his own party is, perhaps, the reason why the Prime Minister’s latest exercise is so lopsided and unconvincing. This is particularly true with regard to the regional representation. As of today, states of Bihar, Odisha and Assam have no cabinet ministers. True, the Congress does not have MPs from Bihar, but a Bihar Congress man could have been made a minister as a Rajya Sabha member from some other state. After all, if having just one Congress MP, the tiny Himachal can have two cabinet ministers in Virbhadra Singh and Anand Sharma (he is a Rajya Sabha member from Haryana), the same thing could have been done for a leader from Bihar. The cases of Assam and Odisha are really surprising. In Assam, the Congress just won the Assembly elections for the record third time. But it does not have a cabinet minister, unless one takes into account the technical fact that the Prime Minister himself is from Assam as a Rajya Sabha member.
In the last general elections, the Congress had staged an impressive comeback in Odisha by securing six out of 21 seats in the Lok Sabha. A party that is really serious in recapturing a major state electorally would have given Odisha 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 the state. But what actually happened was that the state got only one minister of state in Srikant Jena (chemical and fertilisers). Though Jena has been made now a minister of state with independent charge of the department of programme implementation, he is understandably hurt as he was a full-fledged cabinet minister in the government of India under Prime Ministers Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. I think that if Jena is good enough for an independent charge, he is good enough for a cabinet berth, particularly when there is no constitutional bar to the limits of cabinet ministers in a government; the limit is there for the overall size of the ministry.
One, of course, could argue that under the Congress government, cabinet ministers have to be of really of high caliber and in keeping Jena a minister 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. Even otherwise, if Jena is not performing, he should have been dropped and in his place either Hemanand Biswal, a former Odisha chief minister or Bhakta Charan Das, a former minister of state for railways, could have been sworn in. No wonder why Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who was otherwise going downhill, has now a huge political issue to exploit by saying that the state is always insulted whenever there is a Congress-led central government.
But then Jena is not the only sulking minister. The same is being said about Veerappa Moily, who has been shifted from law to corporate affairs. Gurudas Kamat from Mumbai has left the ministry in protest. Viewed thus, the latest exercise is more about scuffling than shuffling.
By Prakash Nanda