Posted by: John Elliott | May 28, 2009

India’s Cabinet haggling shows it needs a House of Lords for ruffled egos

It’s rare to find something positive to say about Britain’s honours system but, as 59 of India’s new ministers  were being sworn in this morning, I realised that India’s new Council of Ministers is really being partly used as an inefficient form of such a system.

Think how many of the total of Council’s 79 ministers could have been left out of the list if they could have been sent instantly to the Lords (getting into India’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha is much more cumbersome and slow), or given a knighthood or some other gong, instead being awarded jobs to run the country.

The thought seemed even more valid as the country has waited all day (it is now 7pm) for an announcement on the ministers’ jobs – an announcement that has apparently been delayed hour after hour by persistent lobbying for top posts.

Farooq Abdullah, the veteran and sociable Kashmir politician, whose real ambition is to be India’s president or deputy president, could have become Lord Abdullah of Srinagar instead of minister of new and renewable energy.

Also, with fewer plaudits, Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was sacked as Congress’s chief minister in Maharashtra after last Novembers terrorist attacks could have had a knighthood instead of the ministry of heavy industries and public enterprises when he is not even an MP, leaving room for someone more interested.

Similarly accommodated could have been other politicians who Congress needs to consolidate its position in various states ahead of coming assembly elections, such as Maharashtra’s polls in September-October. India’s Bharat Ratna and Padma awards, made annually on Republic Day, do not have the same flexibility for stroking bruised egos.

Some of those left out will no doubt become governors of states, but that is usually seen, to use an English expression, as being “put out to grass”.

Consequently, the choice of ministers for what was originally billed as an efficient can-do government has been blurred and sabotaged by regional, caste, and other lobbying.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and the United Progressive Alliance coalition, have spent eleven days trying to balance efficiency and youth on the one hand with prestige and greed (much of it dynasty-based) on the other – also bringing in, as I just mentioned, politicians who can use their prestige as central government ministers to strengthen Congress in the states at the expense of smaller regional parties.

Sadly however, central government efficiency does not seem to have won, though there are nearly 30 new faces, many young, which is good – and heavily dynastic, which is not.

The overall result does not look like being as focussed as had been expected – though a fair verdict will have to wait for the ministerial jobs to be announced, and for those appointed to show what they can do. Singh today described the cabinet as “energetic” with a mixture of youth and experience, but Gandhi admitted it had been “difficult” to finalise.

M. Karunanidhi, the 86-year old DMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister, has run rings round Singh and Gandhi as he has pushed the bounty-seeking interests of his party and dynasty-based entourage. He has only 18 MPs in the UPA, which totals 322 including supporters, so is not a crucial ally: yet other appointments have been held up for several days over the past week as the twists and turns of his warring family and other MPs were splashed across newspaper headlines and tv screens.

 Eventually a cabinet job has gone to A.Raja, previously a much-criticised telecoms minister, who Manmohan Singh had been determined to exclude. And M.K.Alagiri, one of Karunanidhi’s sons, is also in the cabinet even though he is a first-time MP.

Once that drama was over, Singh and Gandhi were swamped with intense lobbying from other states which were rightly jealous of the ridiculous time and attention given to Karunanidhi, and some regional party leaders who were jealous of some of the ministers announced last Friday.


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