Cabinet formation in a coalition government is always a painful exercise. With different allies clamouring for the same high-profile berths, the constitution of the Cabinet remains the Prime Minister’s prerogative only in theory. But the difficulties with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Tamil Nadu aside, the Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put together the core of the Cabinet of the new United Progressive Alliance government with a minimum of fuss. There were few surprises among the 19 Cabinet ministers sworn in along with Dr. Singh, and the big names in the previous government, Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram, and Sharad Pawar got key ministries. S.M. Krishna, who has been made the External Affairs Minister, and Mamata Banerjee, who has been given Railways, are the new entrants to get important portfolios. In making the choice, Dr. Singh evidently wanted to stress more on experience and continuity than on youth and change. But young faces, with Rahul Gandhi possibly at the head, may find a place when the Cabinet is expanded. After all, the young brigade of the party played a role in helping the Congress reinvent itself as a party of the present and the future and the Council of Ministers will have to adequately reflect that reality.
The refusal of the DMK to initially join the government was essentially a failure to see the difference between 2004 and 2009. In 2004, the Congress was in a desperate need of allies. Indeed, the Congress was experimenting with a coalition government for the first time at the national level, and seeking to replicate the earlier success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in finding new friends. The DMK-led alliance made a clean sweep of the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in 2004 and a grateful Congress rewarded the regional ally with key portfolios. Now, the Congress is in such an advantageous position that there was no dearth of post-poll support. The Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Janata Dal(Secular), have all added to the UPA’s numbers. Moreover, the DMK needs the Congress more in Tamil Nadu than the Congress needs the DMK at the Centre. The party thus was left with little choice but to come on board. The problem was no doubt complicated by the goal of getting three members of Mr. Karunanidhi’s family into the ministry. Even in a milieu where several political dynasties have emerged, this was seen as an extreme manifestation of the tendency to treat public office as heritable property. With the Prime Minister now having a freer hand in distributing the other portfolios and expanding the Cabinet to its full size, the tasks of governance will no longer have to wait.