If Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives — where one-third of his Ministers got the chop — is the exemplar of ruthlessness in Cabinet reshuffles, Manmohan Singh's ministerial makeover is a case study in timidity and pointlessness. The circular swapping of portfolios seemed like an exercise in musical chairs with one crucial difference: in the actual game, it is customary for at least one person to be dropped. Congress party managers would have the country believe that the shunting of senior Ministers from the Petroleum and Natural Gas, Road Transport, Steel, Sports, Heavy Industries, Water Resources, and other portfolios was intended to send a message that underperformance would not be tolerated. But with not even one Minister dropped, the conclusion to be drawn is that mediocrity and lack of commitment are not fatal attributes for aspirants to high office. Acknowledging the disappointing nature of his exercise, the Prime Minister told reporters after the swearing in that this reshuffle had only been a “minor” one and that another change would be effected after the Budget. But such a promise is easier made than fulfilled. Considering that more than two dozen new portfolios were assigned, the present reshuffle can hardly be called minor. And if several Ministers were moved because of their poor performance, common sense suggests they are unlikely to be evicted from their new charge without giving them at least six to eight months to redeem themselves.
Between the Commonwealth Games fiasco and the 2G spectrum and Adarsh scams, the credibility of the ruling coalition is at an all-time low. Far from improving things, the reshuffle is likely to further diminish public confidence in the ability of the United Progressive Alliance to provide clean and efficient governance. With the induction of younger Ministers inexplicably postponed, the shuffling of a suspect pack of cards can at best make for a poor political gamble. The only bright side is that crucial resource-related Ministries like P&NG and Water Resources have finally been handed over to men who will have a better measure of their strategic value for the country than their previous incumbents did. One should also be grateful that the Prime Minister did not give in to the pressure to shift Jairam Ramesh — whose exertions in the Environment ministry have helped burnish the image of the government — to some other portfolio. Going beyond individuals, it is not clear whether the reshuffle will lead to Dr. Singh being more assertive on issues where Cabinet divisions have prevented crucial decisions from being taken. The fate of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is one such issue but there are others. The government's attitude towards food security and the employment guarantee scheme suggests a leadership out of tune with the economic reality that confronts millions of Indians.