Cabinet reshuffle & the big picture

If the past is any indication, the mere induction of ministers doesn’t by itself change political equations in the localities

There is something in the air of Lutyens’ Delhi that makes its inhabitants heady over any real or proposed reshuffle in the Union Council of Ministers. During his five years at the helm, Rajiv Gandhi pandered to this yearning for unending churning by changing his ministerial team every six months or so.

By contrast, Manmohan Singh has been partial to continuity. Maybe this has been due to the fact that he was never a complete master of his own destiny. Buffeted between coalition imperatives and the non-playing captains in 10 Janpath, he has operated under severe limitations.
Last week’s reorganisation of the team was a little different from half-hearted exercises of the past. First, this time there were no coalition pressures. Apart from a solitary minister of state from the Nationalist Congress Party who was quietly palmed off to his mentor Sharad Pawar’s ministry, the alterations were exclusively a Congress affair. Whether the Congress has the comfort of numbers to be able to confine its sights exclusively to the party is something that must await the course of the Winter Session of Parliament beginning later in November. However, to the outside world the Prime Minister and Congress president maintained the pretence that the party had a majority on its own.
The real significance of the openings created by the departure of the Trinamul Congress and the reluctance of the DMK to fill its ministerial quota were quite deliberately understated.
Secondly, this delusion of grandeur was further maintained by the special accommodation of Andhra Pradesh. That the late Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy contributed disproportionately to the success of the UPA in both 2004 and 2009 is a matter of record. However, it is clear that the benefits that accrued to the state in October 2012 stemmed less from Andhra’s clout in the Congress than from its vulnerability.
The elevation of Pallam Raju to the Cabinet, the inclusion of Chiranjeevi as a minister of state with independent charge and the accommodation of other junior worthies may actually seem a desperate measure to somehow contain the pincer movement by the YSR Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. Recent opinion polls suggest that the Congress may find it extremely difficult to win more than five Lok Sabha seats in the event of a snap election.
If the past is any indication, the mere induction of ministers doesn’t by itself change political equations in the localities. The government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had some five Cabinet ministers from undivided Bihar at the time of the Lok Sabha dissolution in 2004. However, both the BJP and its ally did disastrously in Bihar at the parliamentary election. Likewise, when the V.P. Singh wave first hit Uttar Pradesh, Rajiv Gandhi tried to offset his estranged colleague’s influence among Thakurs by resurrecting Dinesh Singh from oblivion and appointing him external affairs minister. This had very little effect on the ground.
Inducting a politician into the ministry may, at best, give an individual enhanced status in the locality. But symbolic gestures rarely translate into the larger political goodwill the Congress craves for. What matters is the wider political message.
To the extent that the Congress was desirous of packaging last week’s reshuffle as an attempt to give more responsibility to younger ministers the party was aware of the importance of the big picture. Although statistically the average of Manmohan Singh’s team has fallen marginally from 65 years to roughly 64 years, the Congress was successful in conveying the message that the process of generational change that was being demanded has begun, albeit modestly.
More important was the emergence of another theme that the Congress, perhaps understandably, was not unduly anxious to over-emphasise: the domination of the economic ministries by those who have the reputation of being reformers and who share the Prime Minister’s broad economic philosophy.
The injection of a measure of ideological coherence into the economic ministries is no doubt welcome. At least the coming months may see an end to the confusion over and resistance to market-based reforms. Manmohan may even take advantage of his nominee in the railways ministry to try and remove a major infrastructural bottleneck. Indeed, so high is the apparent optimism of being able to achieve reforms and ensure fiscal consolidation that finance minister P. Chidambaram announced the government’s willingness to travel by the fiscal roadmap of the Vijay Kelkar committee. Chidambaram has also been less squeamish about putting political pressure on the Reserve Bank of India to cut interest rates.
What this implies is something quite dramatic. Does the behaviour of the Prime Minister and finance minister indicate that the Congress has decided to go slow on Sonia Gandhi’s desire to expand the welfare net?
Expressed in another way, has the Prime Minister decided to liberate himself from the shackles of populism for the remainder of his tenure?
The signs are confusing. At one level the government has chosen to persevere with its in-principle decision to raise user charges in power, fuel and railway travel. At the same time, there is frenzied activity to ready the Aadhar scheme for direct cash transfers before the election. The government, it would seem, is keeping both options ready. The outcome of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election and the course of the Parliament session will tell us whether the regime will turn right or left. The state of the Opposition will shape the final judgment.

The writer is a senior journalist

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