Congress gives eastern India a costly miss, again

When a ruling party goes for a ministerial reshuffle closer to the end of its tenure, the exercise is often expected to be tailored to the upcoming elections. Such conventional wisdom, however, appeared to be missing when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the biggest-ever cabinet reshuffle of his time on Sunday.

That Andhra got the biggest slice, while Kerala and Rajasthan ended up with almost every third Congress MP of theirs as a minister is only one side of the story that defies logic. Every third member in the 74-member UPA government’s council of ministers is now from one of these three states. Together, these three states account for about 16% of the total seats in Parliament. The imbalance is evident.

The rationale for going so generous on Andhra, Rajasthan and Kerala is as follows:

1. Although these states led the pack in winning seats for Congress in the 2009 elections, their representation in the council of ministers was less than adequate.

2. That Rajasthan will hold assembly elections next year and Andhra the year after alongside the Lok Sabha elections, the gesture will help Congress prospects there.

Unfortunately, neither of these lines of reasoning hold much ground.

If their representations were overlooked in 2009, correcting it now makes no difference. As for getting the stage set for 2014, it would be naïve to think the Cabinet rejig would reverse the Congress slide in Andhra. The only way Congress can hope for a repeat of the past two elections in this southern state is to cut a deal with Jagan — the Mamata Banerjee of Andhra Pradesh. And in Rajasthan, where it won 19 out of 25 seats, it can’t expect more in 2014.

A more bizarre scenario relates to Kerala, which now has eight ministers. It’s a state where, no matter what, the Cong-led UDF and the Left front swap place every election.

Yet, the UPA leadership chose to go overboard with these states, and in the process ignored several other states where it not has a good presence but also better prospects in the next elections.

There have been reports about Maharashtra was left out and that Uttar Pradesh deserved more attention.

But the worst oversight has been in the case of eastern state. Jharkhand has drawn a blank and has now no representation in the council of minister. Bihar got its first minister in UPA, but he — Tariq Anwar — came from the quota set aside for Alliance partner NCP. Bengal saw the induction of three of its Congress MPs, in positions vacated by Trinamool, but all of them were taken as ministers of state. There is none from Bengal with a Cabinet. The most puzzling of the decisions, however, relates to Odisha. At a time when the ruling Biju Janata Dal in the state is fast losing its grip amid growing factionalism and allegations of corruption, the Congress seems to have no strategy to cash in on. When it won six of 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha in 2009, the state got one minister in the MoS rank — that too a person who had already held a Cabinet rank in the past. While that anomaly remains to be corrected, expectations that the eastern state would get a better representation were belied. It surely would send a message that Congress doesn’t care for Odisha and unduly give the regional ruling party a handle to strike back.

On Sunday, the prime minister said he was probably undertaking the last reshuffle before 2014. If that were to be true, it would be unfortunate, not just for eastern India but for Congress. The oversight may prove expensive in 2014.

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