This was no time for overhauling, but even if it were to have been only tinkering, a lot more could have been done with much better results. The general election is less than a year away, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot be faulted for having focused on keeping things going while undertaking his latest cabinet shuffle. Even so, this was surely an opportunity to have infused some life and purpose into the government at the fag-end of its term. But, instead of taking in the big picture, Dr. Singh concentrated on the details in a few States. Actually, the shuffle appears intended to keep some of the party bigwigs in key States happy, and not to improve the functioning of the government. Of course, it is but natural that political as well as administrative calculations go into any change in the Council of Ministers. However, the latest additions to the Cabinet and reallocation of portfolios are mainly directed at boosting the chances of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, which delivered to the Congress 33 of its 42 seats, and Rajasthan, which gave the party 20 of its 25 seats in 2009. For the Congress, any significant drop in the tally from these two States would seriously hurt its chances of returning to power at the Centre. Karnataka, with 28 seats, is one of the few States where the Congress can hope to improve upon its performance in 2009. Whether Mallikarjun Kharge was rewarded for bowing out of the race for the Chief Minister’s gaddi in Karnataka last month without too much of a murmur, or for improving the party’s chances in the Lok Sabha election next year, the decision was just as political. Besides Mr. Kharge, the other beneficiary from Karnataka was Oscar Fernandes, who moved from an organisational post back to the Cabinet.
When the future is seen as less than a year away, the older members of the party will manage to elbow their way in. There was no stamp of Rahul Gandhi on the shuffle. But after his elevation as the party’s vice-president, Mr. Gandhi must have been keener on building up the organisational strengths of the Congress than on improving the functioning of the government. While its principal rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is trying to make the next election all about Narendra Modi, the Congress appears intent on micro-managing the outcomes at the level of each State. Indeed, while the BJP seems ready to even forsake its allies in its quest to make a national hero of Mr. Modi, the Congress, less ambitiously, is looking for new friends and regional-level accretions to its vote share. But smart politics is also about good governance. In the final stretch, the Congress cannot afford to let Dr. Singh and his team run out of steam.