Tepid changes made cabinet reshuffle a non-event (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Friday, January 21, 2011

Although a cabinet reshuffle usually arouses more hope than what it fulfils, it is still awaited with eager anticipation because of the promise of a new beginning. This time, however, the exercise has been a disappointment because of the tepid nature of the changes.

If the expectations were high earlier, the reason was the belief that Manmohan Singh’s endeavour would be bold enough to dispel the impression of a government more concerned with fending off opposition attacks on the various scams than in outlining distinctive, even audacious, policy directions.

Not surprisingly, therefore, speculation was rife of major changes at the top starting with the induction of the prime minister’s economic adviser C. Rangarajan or Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia as the new finance minister in place of Pranab Mukherjee. The step would have seemed logical since the corporate sector’s expectations about more energetic economic reforms in the absence of the Left had not been met.

In the event, not only was there no redistribution of portfolios among the Big Four - finance, home, defence and external affairs - but no changes at all. It is probably for the first time ever that a reshuffle has taken place where the ministers have only been moved around like pawns on a chessboard with no one being dropped or dramatically elevated. It is almost as if the Congress is too weighed down by all the criticism as well as the grim possibility of a stalled parliament to take any step which will entail the slightest political risk.

The preference for maintaining the status quo is all the more strange considering the prime minister has promised a “more expansive exercise” after the budget. Since the remark suggests that he believes there is scope for a major shake-up, the waiting period of a few months can seem like a pointless marking of time.

In any event, it will mean that none of the ministers will be able to settle down to their new assignments since they cannot be sure that they will remain in their present positions for long. As such, there does not seem to have been any pressing need for the mid-week rejig. Instead of energising the ministers, it will probably make some of them more listless because of the perceived snubs.

Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Praful Patel, for instance, may be miffed over the loss of the high-profile civil aviation ministry despite his elevation to the cabinet rank since the new portfolio of heavy industries does not have the same status. It is possible that Air India’s continuing losses played a part in Patel’s transfer.

Similarly, Kamal Nath’s claim he does not regard being moved from highways and road transport to urban development as either promotion or demotion means that he really sees it as the latter. The reason is that ever since the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government initiated the Golden Quadrangle project to link the four corners of the country by expressways, the ministry dealing with highways has acquired considerable importance because of the high ambition of the venture and the scope of corruption, which has led to the ministry being derisively called an ATM, providing instant cash.

Murli Deora too is likely to see the shift from petroleum and natural gas, which are almost always in the news, to corporate affairs as a step downwards. So will former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh from the low key heavy industries to an even lower key rural development and panchayati raj. Former chief election commissioner M.S. Gill’s transfer from the sports ministry to statistics and programme implementation may not have anything to do with his promise to make the Commonwealth Games as feisty and colourful as a Punjabi wedding, but he will certainly be much less in the limelight.

There is upward mobility too, for some. Vyalar Ravi, for instance, has been given the additional charge of civil aviation apart from retaining his earlier portfolio of overseas Indian affairs while Jaipal Reddy has moved to petroleum and natural gas from urban development. NCP’s Sharad Pawar, however, can be said to have stayed at the same level although he lost the food portfolio because he had requested the prime minister to lighten his burden after becoming chairman of the International Cricket Council.

Even more than these ups and downs, what was noteworthy was that the portfolios of the Congress’ two major allies, the Trinamool Congress and the DMK, remained untouched. Rumours that Trinamool will get an additional cabinet post, apart from the railway ministry which is under its chief Mamata Banerjee, were proved wrong.

Since both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are going to the polls this summer, the prime minister is evidently waiting for the election results to be out before taking any steps. The DMK, of course, has been so much under a cloud because of the charges against former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja on the 2G spectrum scam that it doesn’t seem to have made any demands at all although the possibility of the induction of T.R. Baalu, a former minister, was briefly mentioned.

But, as is obvious, all these comings and goings have the hallmark of timidity, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has alleged, with no major implications. From this standpoint, the reshuffle was a virtual non-event.

(22.01.2011-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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