Posted by: John Elliott | May 22, 2009

Regional party claims cloud India’s new cabinet – updated

The prime minister and 19 ministers were sworn in Friday evening May 22. The first six cabinet appointments were announced Saturday afternoon – see [confirmed Saturday] inserts below. More names and positions are expected next Tuesday.

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It is ironic – and very revealing – that prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi have had more problems handling demands for lucrative ministerial posts from the DMK, a regional ally from Tamil Nadu, than in filling the most senior jobs in India’s new cabinet.

Following allegations of non-performance and corruption against some DMK ministers in the last government, the prime minister has been specially keen to exclude two of the party’s former ministers in charge of communications (including telecommunications) and surface transport (including highways), and also to get competent performers into such key infrastructure ministries.

M. Karunanidhi (right), with Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee, A.J.Antony, at a UPA meeting this week - a Reuters pic

M. Karunanidhi (right), with Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee, A.J.Antony, at a UPA meeting this week - a Reuters pic

That led to an impasse with the DMK, though it has been reported this evening that Congress is giving way on the two ministers, T.R.Baalu and A.Raja, and has offered to have them back in the cabinet, but not in infrastructure posts because of poor performance and controversies on highways and telecoms.

Earlier in the day, it looked as if a few posts such as communications, labour and possibly coal or mining might be left vacant (technically under the prime minister’s direct charge) for as long as a week or so in the hope of a compromise.

The shamelessness with which the DMK has publicly pursued its partially dynastic demands is both horrifying and comical. M. Karunanidhi, the 86-year old DMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister, initially demanded five cabinet berths with jobs for at least four of his family, including two of his sons and a daughter (by two of his wives).

Karunanidhi fasting over Sri Lanka last month - an AP pic

Karunanidhi fasting over Sri Lanka last month - an AP pic

Of the family candidates, grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, who was an effective telecommunications minister in the last government till Karunanidhi withdrew him in a family feud, is being offered the job again. But that is reported to have caused Karunanidhi problems with his more immediate family, and with the two others the government did initially not want.

One can almost sympathise with such a veteran politician for facing so much relentless pressure from his family near the end of his political career.

Meanwhile it looks as if Pranab Mukherjee will move from his old job as foreign minister and take over the finance ministry [confirmed Saturday] –  a job he first held 25 years ago. He has never been billed as a committed economic reformer, though he did try, unsuccessfully, to liberalise defence manufacturing when he was in charge of that ministry at the start of the last government. He is a respected and very able politician, which should help with the implementation of the government’s pro-poor and other policies.

That has left a gap at the external affairs ministry which, as I write, does not seem to have been filled. S.M.Krishna, a 77-year old former chief minister of Karnataka and governor of Maharashtra, is currently reported to be in the running for the job [confirmed Saturday].

 Kamal Nath is reported to have declined the portfolio, choosing apparently to stay as commerce and industry minister.
 
Another reported candidate for foreign affairs has been Kapil Sibal, formerly science minister, though it would be an unusually huge jump in status. He looks likely to be human resources minister (which I tipped him for a few days ago), in charge of sorting out India’s ailing education system.

Palianappan Chidambaram, is remaining home minister [confirmed Saturday] where he is in the middle of revamping the security services, and A.J.Antony is staying at defence [confirmed Saturday]. Antony is seen as a safe choice, even though he has allowed trade unions and others in the defence establishment to stall opening up manufacturing to the private sector.

But the most significant event in the past few days has been the way that Congress’s allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have relentlessly pushed for lucrative rather than merely prestigious jobs – and that Congress has tried with only limited success to resist some of their demands.

Congress has 206 MPs in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (lower house) out of a total of 322 for the UPA and its supporters – but, even with such a high Congress figure, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have had to give way to the Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) as well as handling the DMK’s demands.

Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool, who routed the communist-led Left Front in West Bengal, is being given the railways ministry [confirmed Saturday], even though she is not the most effective candidate.

The Maharashtra-based NCP’s Sharad Pawar is reported to be getting his old agriculture job back [confirmed Saturday], also Praful Patel at aviation – even though there has been criticism of the way those ministries have been run.

The DMK fought so long and hard for the jobs it wants that it seriously slowed down the selection of ministers.  That is why only 19 ministers have been sworn in tonight. There will another swearing-in session next Tuesday.

In India’s coalition governments, politics are always dominated by the ministers’ ability to raise money, as well as by ambitions  for power and prestige. Sadly, it does not look like being very different with the new government.

An earlier version of this post is on www.ft.com/world/asiapacific/india

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Responses

  1. […] are two points here. As I have often written before, Mr Singh has little control when choosing many of his ministers, and has limited control over what many of them do once they are […]

  2. It was touted to be different without the shackles of the so called left under whose slavery the honest and hard woprking PM could not deliver what he wanted to? Time will tell in what way is the DMk and TMC slavery or shackles be different. By my reckoning it could be worse, because they (left) were not as corrupt or not corrupt as the southern allies DMK are. they are compulsive to say the least. they make no bones of the money spent on getting here, which needs to be recouped. whither honesty?


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