By no reckoning can Jaipal Reddy — who has been ousted from Petroleum and Natural Gas and sent on a punishment posting to Science & Technology and Earth Sciences — be considered a nonperforming minister.
The last reshuffle of the Council of Ministers before the general election was expected to be a blockbuster affair, complete with a Rahul Gandhi-inspired youthful facelift for a government viewed as dull, ageing and corrupt beyond redemption. Yet an all-out purge would have been out of character for the risk-averse dyarchy of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, especially given the United Progressive Alliance’s reduced numbers in the Lok Sabha. In the event, the reshuffle has turned out to be quietly dramatic, with changes in key Cabinet portfolios, mid-level but significant promotions for young ministers, and the strategic accommodation of regional interests aimed at boosting the strength of the Congress party in key States. The biggest upheavals have been in the ministries of External Affairs and Petroleum and Natural Gas. Salman Khurshid is a natural choice to fill the vacuum created by S.M. Krishna’s exit. Mr. Krishna may have been slow to get off the block but he leaves behind a Ministry that is focused and efficient and in whose performance he played no small role. Always articulate, Mr. Khurshid has the breadth of vision needed to pull off complex diplomatic challenges. Of course, it is a job that will need his undivided attention at a time when he is in unnecessary trouble over allegations of irregularities in a trust run by him. Though the Congress high command has done well to ignore over-the-top demands for Mr. Khurshid’s resignation and gone ahead and promoted him, the sooner the allegations are despatched, the better.
At a time when the UPA government is on the mat for having shown undue favours to big business in the allocation of spectrum, coal and land, it is baffling that the one minister who faithfully discharged his role as the public’s custodian of natural resources should be shunted out. By no reckoning can Jaipal Reddy — who has been ousted from Petroleum and Natural Gas and sent on a punishment posting to Science & Technology and Earth Sciences — be considered a nonperforming minister. Indeed, he brought independence and dynamism in a ministry that had drawn too close to key companies in the sector like Reliance Industries Ltd. during the tenure of his predecessor Murli Deora. Mr. Reddy safeguarded the interests of the exchequer by holding firm on issues like the pricing of RIL’s gas output. It says something for the influence of big business on the all-important ministry that he is the second incumbent in recent years to have paid the price for refusing to toe the line of the energy establishment. In 2006, Mani Shankar Aiyar was eased out for not being industry friendly.
Left to himself, the flamboyant and unflagging Kapil Sibal would liked to have kept both the Human Resource Development Ministry he had held since 2009 as well as the Communications portfolio he inherited after A. Raja’s resignation. But with the Prime Minister keen to optimise the allocation of ministerial work, Mr. Sibal was forced to hand over HRD to M.M. Pallam Raju, the 50-year-old entrepreneur-turned-politician from Andhra Pradesh who has served for many years now as Minister of State in the Defence Ministry. Other key changes include the well-deserved elevation of Ajay Maken, the induction of Manish Tewari as Information & Broadcasting Minister, and the handing over of Parliamentary Affairs as additional charge to Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath. On his shoulders will now fall the burden of floor management, a tricky issue for the UPA as it seeks to pilot a variety of bills, including some that are crucial to the economic reform agenda of the government. With the exit of the Trinamool Congress, the UPA requires all the friends it can get to pre-empt any accident on the floor of the House. Giving Kumari Selja charge of Social Justice is also a smart move; until now, the dynamic Minister has been forced to hold diverse portfolios in different ministries.
The promotion of Mr. Raju and Mr. Maken to Cabinet rank and the elevation to independent charge of a bunch of junior ministers, among them Rahul protégés Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Jitendra Singh, ought to go some way towards meeting the criticism that young ministers are deliberately kept at a level where they can play little or no role. The return of Shashi Tharoor as a junior minister also adds both youth and charisma to the government. But here, the choice of names and portfolios appears to have been not very carefully considered. While Mr. Scindia has rightly been handed charge of a crucial infrastructure ministry like Power, giving Corporate Affairs to Mr. Pilot makes little sense since the bulk of the work in that area is handled by official regulators and ministerial dynamism is not really that essential. The failure to give D. Purandeswari independent charge of a ministry or department is also puzzling, as is the absence of more youthful faces among the new inductees. Does this represent the unyielding and perhaps unavoidable hold of the old party apparatus? Possibly. But with time running out for the Congress, a bolder, chancier reshuffle focused on bridging the governance deficit that is so apparent in dozens of ministries would have been a more prudent electoral strategy than its reliance on a political model centred around regional appeasement, traditional loyalties and patronage networks. The coda to this reshuffle may well be the changes the Congress is planning in its organisational structure. But if its new-look government doesn’t deliver the goods, none of that will matter.