Posted by: John Elliott | January 20, 2011

India’s Government has a spineless reshuffle

The Indian government’s political weakness was demonstrated last night when prime minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, who presides over the Congress Party and the coalition, carried out a reshuffle of medium-senior ministers without generating any new energy. The weakness was most evident in the failure to retire ageing ministers, sack those most involved in corruption, and promote able young parliamentarians in their late 30s and early 40s who would add dynamism to a tired administration and rudderless party.

Overall, there was some good news in the reshuffle and some not so good news.

The good news was that Praful Patel, a leading and wealthy Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) politician, was removed as Aviation Minister, and that his NCP leader, Sharad Pawar, lost responsibility for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, though he retained Agriculture and Food Processing Industries.

This means that the plight of Air India and problems of new airports can be tackled afresh by someone not sullied by actionless pr spin and rumours of long links with private sector airlines. Moves can also be started to curb food price inflation, now running at around 18% under Mr Pawar’s ineffectual care.

More good news was that Murli Deora lost Petroleum and Natural Gas, where he was seen to have mishandled blockages on Vedanta, a controversial mining company, taking over Scotland-based Cairn Energy’s Indian gas field business. His successor, S. Jaipal Reddy, an experienced and respected politician, will not have the overlay of Mr Deora’s close business links – especially (reportedly) with Reliance Industries.

Jairam Ramesh stays

It is also good that Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, holds on to his job and can continue to bring some order to a hitherto corrupt and uncontrolled area of government. He has clashed with many ministers including (unsurprisingly) Mr Pawar and Mr Patel over projects they have been promoting, but is now showing more willingness to find a way for big deals to go ahead without breaking environmental regulations.

Kapil Sibal also stays with education and telecoms as the Human Resource Development Minister, and at Communications and Information Technology.

Less good news is that Mr Patel, who moves to the unexciting slot of Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, has got a seat in the cabinet, which can only be seen as a pay-ff for him and his boss losing Aviation and Food.

Other key moves were Kamal Nath, who was demoted last year from Commerce and Industry to Road Transport and Highways, slipping sideways to Urban Development, where much needs to be done in terms of urban planning and renewal. It is not clear however if he has the energy and incentive to tackle it. Nath was named in the recent Radia tapes leaks as someone who could “make his 15%” on highway contracts..

Salman Khursheed, who was first a minister in the 1980s, has given up Company Affairs but has taken on Water Resources, where major work is needed to secure future supplies, in addition to his existing charge of Minority Affairs

C.P.Joshi, a Rajasthan  politician, takes over at Highways, where he has the difficult job of reviving the pace of road construction. Vayalar Ravi adds Aviation to his existing Overseas Indian Affairs portfolio. It is too early to guess how well either minister will do, though they are sure to spend less time than their predecessors camouflaging their work with media leaks and briefings.

Ajay Maken, a younger politician from Delhi, becomes Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, replacing the veteran bureaucrat-turned politician M.S.Gill, who presided somewhat ineffectually over the recent Commonwealth Games preparations with their widespread corruption. There were also changes at the Steel and the Mines ministries.

The major portfolios of Finance, Home, Foreign Affairs and Defence were unchanged in what was the first cabinet reshuffle since last year’s general election. Mr Singh is talking about a bigger reshuffle in a couple of months time, when it is assumed some of the demands from state-based parties such as Tamil Nadu’s DMK for lucrative prestigious posts might be met.

Lack of political skills

The reshuffle came at a time when Mrs Gandhi and Manmohan Singh seem to be losing energy and authority, not because they are disagreeing with each other but because they lack the guile and political sure-footedness needed to run a multi-party coalition and tackle endemic corruption and poor governance.

Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son and a future dynastic prime minister, is failing to emerge as a national leader and shoulder the responsibilities that might be expected of a 40-year old heir apparent. He is an MP, but spends his time touring the country, trying to build up the Congress Party’s regional organisation and making occasional public statements, but not shouldering any accountable responsibilities.

The Gandhi-Singh joint weakness is demonstrated by the failure to retire even M.S.Gill, a septuagenarian who has been moved to Statistics and Programme Implementation to do a job that is best done by a young politician gaining experience of government.

A group of 14 businessmen, a judge, and a former central bank governor warned in a public letter earlier this week that corruption and bad governance threatened India’s growth. “We are alarmed at the widespread governance deficit almost in every sphere of national activity covering government, business and institutions,” said the letter.

Last night’s reshuffle did do something to tackle these worries by moving ministers renowned for corporate cronyism. But, while that might improve the running their old ministries, it did nothing to tackle the government’s overall problems because they all got new jobs in potentially lucrative (kick-back) ministries.


  1. Nothing much could be done by this Govt. They are a coalition with the NCP, one of the most corrupt parties of Maharashtra. There is absolutely no long-term vision when the question is of day-to-day survival.

  2. Manmohan Singh does not have much spine. He used it all up it seems in getting the nuclear deal passed and getting the Delhi airport privatised.

    As for Sonia, she has no vision and her thinking is limited to the garibi hatao strategies which have comprehensively failed us in the past.

  3. Well, we have to agree occasionally. This was such a non-event that even the national dailies didn’t bother with giving it much space. What ails this government? At three demographic levels there is anger on corruption amongst the chatterati, concern about food inflation amongst the middle class, and fear of personal security at the village/tribal level. None of these have been addressed. No messages have been delivered on performance. And at the banal level, a Minister from the Rajya Sabha with no political base has been retained in spite of absolute incompetence in shepherding the Commonwealth Games. To quote Wikileaks, this Government “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”

  4. The shirking by Rahul to accept accountable respobility in reshuffle , may be because of first proving his political skills in UP/Bihar. Rahul may like to be first CM of UP/Bihar than PM. Big dreams have to rest on harsh realities in the world.

  5. Agreed, that the latest reshuffle does continue to display weak leadership, and Mr. Gandhi once again fails to impress and frankly I would be shocked if he were named the candidate for prime minister in 2014, if he continues to avoid positions of real responsibility and establish credibility based on a track record of achievement.

    I think the Kamal Nath comment was a little unfair John, though it is factually correct, someone did indeed say he could make his 15 per cent, there is however not enough context. A reader perusing the piece unaware may make the immediate inference that he is corrupt on the basis of an allegation made by a very nefarious person. The naming occurred during a conversation Ms Radia was having discussing his demotion to highways from commerce, and that he could continue to make his 15 per cent was the supposed bright side of that demotion according to Ms Radia’s analysis. Whether he is or ever was on the take at least to my knowledge remains to be seen, I do not think there is any proof beyond that analysis.

    I am not sure whether Mr. Nath is the clichéd corrupt Indian politician, it would not surprise me if he was, but I do know that even during his tenure as highways minister he did display a bold sense of vision for his ministry and set high standards despite failing to achieve them, which is a quality the vast majority of his brethren in this country lack and as such he is at the very least deserving of the context of that statement until it is indeed proven he is little more than the rest of his caste.

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