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.