Lost in the shuffle

Govt plays political merry-go-round, instead of sending a message of change

The new cabinet "reshuffle" is yet another sign that the government is refusing to measure up to the demands of the time. The reshuffle was done while much of northern and eastern India was blacked out. The NDMC area in the capital had light, but it did not help the government see clearly. If anything, that light has now become a spotlight on how self-obsessed and out of touch the government has become.

Ideally, even a minor reshuffle like this should have sent out strong signals. The credibility of the government is incredibly low. During the past year, it has failed to do a minimal clean-up job to shore up its integrity, it has been bereft of ideas, it has come across as divided and its administrative style as tired and worn out. Most of its ministers evade responsibility; they come across as backroom boys who are a throwback to the Seventies. Most of them do not display any sign that they understand the demands of governance have radically changed. There is more of an odour of an ancien regime desperately trying to cling to its privileges than a modern party trying to do good for the people. A cabinet reshuffle is, above all else, meant to give a signal that the government will at least try to reinvent itself. This was a time to generate new enthusiasm, to change the narrative. Instead, the government gives a signal that it simply wants to play the same merry-go-round.

Second, the enterprise of state building is now deeply challenging. We often do not realise the degree to which the sinews of power that tie a state together have more or less snapped. Ordinary administrative functions are in disarray, chains of command have broken down and the ability to negotiate tough decisions has diminished. In some ways, the fraying of all kinds of things, from power blackouts to rail accidents, from confusions over when the army should be an aid to civil power to the complete absence of police functions, shows a state in slow dissolve. In such circumstances, ministerial responsibility is a full-time job that requires administrative acumen. Close attention to detail matters. But very few ministers seem to even bother. P. Chidambaram, undoubtedly one of the few ministers whose grasp of details is impressive, was sent to reconstruct the home ministry from scratch when Shivraj Patil's regal indifference had run it into the ground. That job was not quite complete and yet the ministry is now suddenly turned over to a politician who, for all his personal qualities, has not yet acquired a reputation for administrative acumen or tough decisions. Even if Sushilkumar Shinde is capable, the changeover at a crucial time in the ministry will not be without costs.

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