Siddharth Varadarajan

Needed: the mother of all reshuffles

A joke was doing the rounds in Delhi these past few weeks that with everybody and their baba now entering politics, perhaps it's time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also jumped in.

As with most jokes, there is an element of both truth and injustice in this one too. Injustice, because at a time when the middle class believes in the congenital venality of politicians, Dr. Singh's apparent lack of political guile is actually a big selling point for the Congress party he serves and the United Progressive Alliance government he heads. But the truth of the matter is that the Prime Minister and his advisers have also been spectacularly inept in dealing with various problems confronting their government. This failure has been one of political instincts and imagination, coupled, in some cases, with sheer bad intent.

The Indian system has a “normal” level of corruption hardwired into it. Judging by recent political history, corruption scandals, by themselves, do not appear to be fatal for parties or coalitions in power. Bofors may have become a byword for corruption but Rajiv Gandhi's defeat in 1989 was the product of other factors, including the mobilisation which took place around the Mandal Commission report on reservation for Other Backward Classes. The National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, had more than its fair share of scams. There was the Coffingate, where money was made in the import of caskets for the soldiers killed at Kargil. There was the petrol pump allotment scam. And then there were the scandals surrounding the privatisations of BALCO, IPCL and Centaur Hotel which effectively killed the government's plan to sell off the bulk of the Indian public sector to big companies at throwaway prices. But even though the PMO of Mr. Vajpayee was a revolving door for corporates and fixers, it wasn't the taint of corruption which finally did the Bharatiya Janata Party in. Rather, its 2004 defeat was the result of a combination of factors — from the Gujarat massacres of 2002 to the rising sense of economic insecurity felt by the mass of urban and rural Indians who saw the government's claims about a Shining India as the last straw.

In contrast, the UPA government today is at its most vulnerable on the question of corruption. It is true that punitive action has been initiated in the case of 2G spectrum allocation scam, the Commonwealth Games and the Adarsh Housing Society. Never before have Ministers and important political personalities and corporate bigwigs been remanded in custody like this. And yet, the public remains unconvinced about the bona fides of the Congress and the UPA. The question people are asking is why it took so long for the Prime Minister to recognise the rot that had set in under his own nose. Even now, the public perception is that the CBI is pulling its punches. When an attempt was made to use a crudely forged audio recording to malign Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan — the father-son duo who have done so much to push for a proper investigation into the 2G scam — it was a top CBI official who planted a story in a financial paper claiming the tape was authentic. Senior UPA Ministers and the Prime Minister himself have accused the Comptroller and Auditor General of over-reach, an accusation that has not gone down well with a middle class that is grateful to the CAG for bringing various irregularities to light.

Despite this handicap, however, all is not lost for the UPA. The opposition, both Right and Left, is facing its own crisis and there are still three years to go before the next general election. Much will depend on the political choices Dr. Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi make now. They can either choose to navigate their way to 2014 in the same lacklustre manner their ship of state has drifted these past two years. Of course, the accumulated cargo of unchecked corruption and unfulfilled promises will get heavier and heavier and ensure the UPA will not be able to undertake another voyage after that. The alternative is for the two leaders to make a break with the past, subject their government to a complete overhaul of crew and turn some of the timid policy proposals that have been knocking around these past few months — on food security, humane land acquisition, profit-sharing for communities displaced by mining, making the right to education more meaningful — into big ideas that can capture the imagination of the electorate.

The opportunity for such a makeover will present itself at 5 pm on Tuesday, the time when the much anticipated Cabinet reshuffle takes place. If the exercise is hesitant, tentative and small-scale, read it as a sign that the Congress leadership has lost the will to fight. A bold and edgy reshuffle, on the other hand, will send out the opposite message — of a party that realises the need to pull itself up and is readying itself for a struggle.

What would boldness in a reshuffle involve? There are three basic elements. First, a willingness to make changes in the optically crucial ‘big four' portfolios of Defence, External Affairs, Finance and Home. Second, a desire to be innovative in matching politicians to portfolios on the basis of what the Ministry concerned actually requires rather than the ego requirements of individual Ministers. Third, a determination to purge underperforming Ministers, promote performers and induct new, and preferably younger, faces.

The Prime Minister's January 2011 reshuffle was a failure because there was a lot of sound but no substance or logic in the makeover. Non-performers were shunted out of their Ministries but not ejected from the Cabinet. Key portfolios were left unfilled. Conscious of the underwhelming impact, Dr. Singh promised a second, more weighty reshuffle. That is why the public expectations are high.

For this, the Prime Minister and the Congress president need to think out of the box, starting with the big four. Pranab Mukherjee could be given charge of Railways and also made Deputy Prime Minister. As Rail minister, he would not only ensure the implementation of the ‘Bengal package' Mamata Banerjee is so attached to but will also bring his accumulated experience to a sector that has long been neglected by indifferent leadership. The idea that leaving Finance for Railways is a demotion would be countered by his elevation as DPM, a designation that would also accord with the large number of ‘Groups of Ministers' he heads. The vacancy in Finance could be filled by the economist and former Reserve Bank of India Governor, C. Rangarajan, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP.

P. Chidambaram in Home is an asset for the government because of his go-getting attitude but his impatience for politics is seen by some as something of a liability in a Ministry that is as much about political management as security. He could be moved to External Affairs, where he would no doubt excel. Digvijay Singh, who has still not completed his self-imposed exile from official responsibilities, would make a good Home Minister, combining the no-nonsense attitude of Mr. Chidambaram with a keen sense of the political. With Telangana, Kashmir, Manipur and a range of tricky issues coming to the fore, the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister would be a useful man to have in North Block.

S.M. Krishna could move from the MEA to Defence. Now that A.K. Antony has put in place a system of transparency in defence procurement — and ensured that the $10 billion contract for fighter aircraft is not determined on extraneous considerations — the Prime Minister may consider deploying his poster boy for probity in the one Ministry most tainted by corruption: Telecoms. Kapil Sibal began the clean-up there after A. Raja's resignation but cannot permanently run Telecom and HRD. Here, the Congress should learn from the positive energy that has flowed from Jaipal Reddy taking charge of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry earlier this year. Once considered the bailiwick of India's largest hydrocarbon company, the Ministry today has managed to regain the trust of the public.

Mani Shankar Aiyar should be brought in to Rural Development to oversee the implementation of MGNREGA and other flagship schemes. Key Ministries like Power and Non-conventional Energy need younger and more dynamic leadership. Now that the Congress has indicated it would like Omar Abdullah to serve out a full term as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps it is time Farooq Abdullah was deployed in a less crucial job. Kumari Selja, Sachin Pilot and Salman Khurshid are all Ministers who could easily handle greater responsibility. The list of those who should be dropped is already known to the Prime Minister. A clue: most of those who lost their portfolios for a reason in the last reshuffle should be considered vulnerable. And one last thought. Sharad Pawar, who spends a lot of time attending to cricket administration, should be given a choice: please decide if you want to run the BCCI or a Ministry of the government. Surely cricket is too important a national preoccupation to have its chief administrator preoccupied with food prices and procurement.

Jokes aside, the Prime Minister should use the reshuffle to demonstrate his political leadership over the coalition government he runs. The people of India expect nothing less.

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Printable version | Aug 16, 2022 8:06:59 pm |