If the long-awaited Union Cabinet reshuffle was intended to refurbish the scams-tainted image, and boost the declining political stock, of the Congress-led government, it has conspicuously failed to do so. The principal message sent out is one of political drift: that this United Progressive Alliance regime is stuck in a course that has taken a heavy toll on its reputation and that it is not willing to act boldly, taking well-calculated risks, to cleanse the system and raise the performance bar for policy-making and governance. As in most such exercises, there are welcome changes: some Ministers judged to be non-performers or underperformers being dropped, a few competent administrators raised to Cabinet rank, a couple of promising young faces inducted. But what stands out is the stickiness and indeed the apparent immovability of the heavyweights in the Cabinet irrespective of their performance, good or bad, and the measurable results of their tenure in office.
The change that raises deep concern over its motivation is the shifting of Jairam Ramesh out of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. He is one Minister who has distinguished himself in a vital and challenging area of governance — by studying environmental and climate change questions seriously, interacting with experts as well as the wider public, standing up to pressure from special interests, corporate as well as political, acting boldly and transparently, and doing valuable agenda-building. The government can argue that Mr. Ramesh's contribution has been rewarded by his elevation from Minister of State (with independent charge) to Cabinet rank and by his being entrusted with the big responsibility of Rural Development. But that argument would be ingenuous. One hopes that Jayanthi Natarajan, Mr. Ramesh's successor, will emulate his example and not allow the momentum he has built on key environmental and climate change issues to dissipate. It is disappointing that at a time when India's massive infrastructural deficits are under the spotlight, the crucial infrastructure ministries whose leadership can at best be described as lacklustre have been left in the same old hands, with Beni Prasad Verma being rewarded with Cabinet rank (for Steel) on account of the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections rather than for his performance. Particularly distressing is the manner in which Water Resources, a crucial Ministry, has been dealt with under UPA-II. It is a political football that has now been kicked back, as ‘additional charge,' to Pawan Kumar Bansal, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs. Finally, the door has been left half-open to the DMK so that it can send, should it so decide, replacements for the two Ministers who were compelled to resign. Textiles, which has been placed in the ‘additional charge' of Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, is surely a portfolio reserved for the aggrieved ally. If this is not a story of drift, what is?
Keywords: Cabinet reshuffle