More than a reshuffle, the UPA government needs a new deck of cards and, much more urgently, a new game.

Any ministerial rearrangement which leaves the big four portfolios of Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance untouched is bound to disappoint headline writers but so underwhelming is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's latest reshuffle that it is hard to understand the motivation or logic behind the entire exercise.

Three weaknesses

The United Progressive Alliance is suffering from three major weaknesses. The first is the public's perception — notwithstanding the ouster of Ashok Chavan from Maharashtra and A. Raja's resignation from the Union Cabinet last year — that Dr. Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are unwilling to act firmly against corruption. The second is that cronyism and personal loyalties are seen as bigger virtues than efficiency. The third is that the Prime Minister himself is unwilling to lead from the front and stare down individual ministers who think they have the individual power to veto collective decisions.

So long in the making was Wednesday's reshuffle that it seemed as if Dr. Singh and Ms Gandhi might actually be willing to make the “course correction” the Prime Minister promised in his New Year's message. While the compulsions of coalition politics limit his options when it comes to the non-Congress ministers, he should have used the prevailing mood in the country to sweep aside Congress ministers who have either failed to make a positive mark or actually done damage. He could have also struck a blow for probity by ousting Vilasrao Deshmukh — indicted recently by the Supreme Court for abusing his authority when he was Chief Minister of Maharashtra — and asking Virbhadra Singh to step aside till he clears himself of charges that the High Court in Himachal Pradesh has already taken congnisance of. Had he done just that much, the Prime Minister could have overcome some of the negative atmospherics generated by the fiasco over 2G spectrum and the controversy over Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas.

Unfortunately, none of this happened. Like old card players who never die — they just shuffle away — the non-performers in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet have simply reshuffled their way to new ministries. And Mr. Deshmukh, whose illegal intervention in a police case in favour of a usurious moneylender ultimately cost the Maharashtra government a Rs.10 lakh fine, actually ended up getting a promotion. He has been moved from Heavy Industries to the much more crucial Rural Development portfolio, which is responsible for the rural employment guarantee programme of the government.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office told The Hindu the reshuffle was intended to send a “perform or perish” message to ministers holding economic portfolios. Thus, Murli Deora, Kamal Nath, Virbhadra Singh and a few others who have not exactly set the Yamuna on fire with their performance were ‘demoted' to less grand ministries. Though Youth Affairs and Sports is not an economic ministry, his handling of the multi-crore Commonwealth Games too cost Mr. M.S. Gill that portfolio. One wonders, however, why these ministers weren't simply thanked for services rendered and their places given to others in the party who might do a better job all round?

The plus side

On the plus side, the biggest positive to emerge from the reshuffle is the transfer of Jaipal Reddy to Petroleum and Natural Gas, a strategic ministry that has never fully recovered from the exit in 2006 of Mani Shankar Aiyar. The pruning of Sharad Pawar's portfolio is another plus, as is the handing over of a crucial ministry like water resources to Salman Khurshid. Minority Affairs, however, will be an unnecessary encumbrance and one hopes the government will have the good sense to think out of the box and give that charge not to a minority politician but to a dynamic, secular non-minority leader with a genuine commitment to the welfare of the minorities. Taking tourism away from Kumari Selja makes no sense given the fair job she was doing; one can only hope the additional charge of Culture given to her is meant for the long-haul. As far as other changes — full cabinet rank for Salman Khurshid, Shriprakash Jaiswal and the induction of Beni Prasad Verma from Uttar Pradesh, for example — tactical considerations seem to have been uppermost in the Congress high command's mind with assembly elections in the crucial state less than a year away. Also, the ‘asset stripped' civil aviation portfolio — temporarily handed over to Vayalar Ravi — is being kept in reserve for allocation to the DMK if the political situation following the Tamil Nadu assembly elections warrants it.

Tactics, however, will take you only so far. Whatever end he hoped the reshuffle would serve, the Prime Minister is likely to find himself confronting the same political challenge tomorrow as he did yesterday: how to restore public confidence in his ability to lead a clean and efficient government. This was not the challenge the Congress faced when it got re-elected to power in 2009 and the party needs to introspect over how it has lost its way. The cabinet reshuffle indicates it is still not ready to do so. The official obfuscation over revenue losses caused by the arbitrary sale of spectrum and the confrontationist stand the Centre is taking over both the CVC and Joint Parliamentary Committee issues suggest the stalemate in Parliament is likely to continue into the Budget session. That this will be bad for Indian democracy is clear. But it is also likely to irreparably harm the political fortunes of the ruling coalition.