Lost in the shuffle
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.
The government has lost the plot in this sense. It is important at least to convince people that ministers are being elevated because of competence. But it is striking that in most reshuffles, with an odd exception or two, there has been no narrative of success around ministers. Quite the opposite. There is some truth in the charge that in the Congress, nothing succeeds like failure. Surely the symbolism of giving the power ministry as an "additional charge" displays the very same casualness that is corroding the state.
Chidambaram's return to the finance ministry will bring some cheer; he is considered a safe pair of hands and has always brought considerable energy to every job he has held. And the finance ministry requires rebooting after the onslaught of the last two years. However, he will be effective only if there is political clarity at the top about the kind of economy we want. Pranab Mukherjee has a lot to answer for his decisions as finance minister. But it strains credulity to suppose that his actions were not tacitly supported by the leadership. There are political risks associated with Chidambaram's shift. The shadow of telecom scandals in various ways still hovers over him. Ironically, it is precisely because he has a reputation for competence that his feigned ignorance in many matters relating to 2G has not sounded as convincing. At the very least, this gives enough ammunition for making the forthcoming Parliament session even more difficult than it might have been.
There is an even more disquieting message in this reshuffle. It is the lack of trust the leadership reposes in the rest of the party. A handful of ministers has been given more responsibilities than they can handle or ought to be entitled to. None of the next generation of leaders is being put to test. Perhaps the leadership does not want them to overshadow Rahul Gandhi till he has made his own preferences clear. Or, perhaps they are genuinely not up to the mark. This is an open question. But there is little doubt that by sticking to the same small coterie, the leadership is indicting its own party, almost as if to say that in the last couple of decades it has not been able to groom people who are both trustworthy and competent.
The Congress also seems to have lost the art of strategic political communication. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to change the narrative. The government cannot defuse people's anger by playing two worn-out cards. The first is hiding behind a feigned sense of being victimised by the Anna movement. The second is secularism blackmail. Those who want a secular India feel assaulted by the Congress in this sense. It seems to think that since it claims monopoly over secularism, it can get away with almost anything else. It is now beginning to use secularism as a way of holding voters hostage. But these are the only two cards it continues to play.
No one knows what Rahul Gandhi really wants. But the manner in which he his handling his transition into political responsibility is, for the moment causing more chaos than clarity: Naa hi ikraar hai, naa hi inkaar hai. You might say that this minor reshuffle is also a stop-gap arrangement till bigger changes come later. But the blunt truth is that time is running out for any radical changes. This reshuffle reminds us that this is a government that has, for the moment, overdrawn its power. It is running on empty privilege, bereft of purpose.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi