Shuffling ministers, changing nothing
Two things need to be said about this week’s Cabinet reshuffle. The first is that it was an exercise in spectacularly inept political timing. It is bizarre to shift the country’s home minister at a time when parts of Assam are still in flames and to replace him with a man who knows nothing about that situation and has never before held this portfolio.
Even worse, in terms of timing, was the decision to seemingly reward Sushil Kumar Shinde for two unprecedented grid failures within 24 hours. You can argue, as Shinde does, that the grid failures were not a reflection on his performance. But the message that went out was that the PM was taking a failed power minister and elevating him to one of the country’s most crucial responsibilities. Certainly, the wishy-washy interviews that Shinde gave, soon after taking the job, did nothing to dispel the impression that he is wholly unsuited to power of any kind, whether electrical or ministerial.
The second thing that needs to be said is that this was an unnecessary reshuffle, forced on the nation by Dr Manmohan Singh’s unwillingness to hold on to the finance portfolio. Ever since he became Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has tried to get away from his reputation as an economic liberaliser and a reformer of the Indian economy. He has said very little of consequence or significance on economic affairs and has done even less. There have been few important reforms and as the economy has gone into a steep dive, he has given the impression that he has no clue about how to arrest the decline.
Instead, Dr Singh spent his first term hoping to become an international statesman, brokering a nuclear deal with America and trying to negotiate a settlement on the Kashmir issue. When Natwar Singh gave up the external affairs portfolio, the Prime Minister was quite happy to hold on to it. And throughout the early part of SM Krishna’s term in office, the PMO let it be known that foreign policy was the Prime Minister’s prerogative, no matter who the external affairs minister was.
So, when the finance ministry landed in his lap after Pranab Mukherjee’s move to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Manmohan Singh was less than delighted. His people made all the right noises about getting the economy back on track but this was more PR than reality. The PM regarded the finance ministry as a ticking time bomb that had ended up in his hands and longed for the opportunity to throw it to somebody else.
The reshuffle, therefore, was not part of any grand design. Its sole raison d’etre was Manmohan Singh’s desire to find a new finance minister. And once one piece is moved on the Cabinet chessboard, a few other pieces also have to be readjusted.
No matter how much feverish speculation there was in the media about other candidates, there was never any doubt that P Chidambaram would be the new finance minister. To understand why, try and see things from Manmohan Singh’s point of view. The PM knows that the economy is a mess, that the gains of the first term have been frittered away, and that India’s reputation as a potential superpower is evaporating quickly. In these circumstances, the last thing he wants is to be associated with the finance ministry in any form. Therefore, there was never any question of him installing Montek Singh Ahluwalia or C Rangarajan or any of the meritocrats he admires to the post. If one of these people had got the job and failed, then the failure would have been seen as Manmohan Singh’s.
It made sense for the PM to find a substantial political figure to shoulder the responsibility – and the blame – and to insulate Manmohan Singh’s own reputation from any finance-related upheavals. P.
Chidambaram was the obvious choice. He has done the job before and done it well. His views on economic matters are broadly in tune with Manmohan Singh’s. The global financial community likes and trusts him.
The Congress would probably have preferred to make this change as part of a wider reshuffle, which could only take place after the Parliament session was over. But Singh had no desire to get up in Parliament and answer questions relating to the finance ministry. Hence, the urgency.
Even those who do not like Chidambaram will have to concede that he has been an excellent home minister. It is not that things have always gone right; more that he has always seemed in control of the machinery of government. His civil servants never loved him but they always admired his intelligence and were intimidated by his air of authority.
All this made Chidambaram a hard act to follow. Traditionally, home ministers were politically influential, consensus figures: look at Shivraj Patil during the first term of the UPA. Chidambaram was India’s first technocratic home minister, going into the nuts and bolts of every operation and holding daily intelligence meetings. The government has either been unable to find another technocratic minister to take his place or has simply decided to go back to the old model of appointing clueless, state politicians.
It is too early to say what kind of home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde will make. But it is not hard to see why he got the job. The single most important factor in his favour was that he is a Dalit. The Congress needs the Dalit vote at the next election and a Dalit home minister is always a good card to play.
Other than that, Shinde has little to recommend him. He is well liked, gets along with everyone and has enormous political experience. What is not clear yet is how competent he is. He was a particularly inept chief minister of Maharashtra – none of his ministers listened to him – and as the black-outs demonstrate, he has not been a successful power minister.
Government sources are claiming that this is not a full reshuffle. The appointment of V Moily as power minister, they say, is tentative.
When the Prime Minister reshuffles his Cabinet after the parliamentary session, India may get a full-fledged power minister, not somebody with an additional charge.
Perhaps. But will there be a full-fledged reshuffle which will bring in fresh young blood? The Congress insists there will. And the Prime Minister is supposed to have come around to accepting this idea.
But let’s wait and see. When it comes to reshuffles, this government’s record is the same as its record on economic growth. It promises a lot. But it doesn’t always deliver.