Political trifling

The cabinet reshuffle is an odd combination of brazenness and caution

This moment of profound political transition is marked by three challenges. First, the party that signals it can be rid of its ancien regime the quickest will stand a better chance of succeeding. Parties that continue to be implicated in the old corrupt, presumptuous and arbitrary order will struggle. Second, the nature of governance is also shifting. To project effectiveness, a government has to perform across several fronts simultaneously: macro economy, education, infrastructure, power, rural development environment and so forth. The weight of governance and growth cannot be borne by a handful of individuals. But many of these ministries require drastic internal revamping, close attention to daily processes and the creation of systems that can deliver on a routine basis. None of these tasks is flashy. And they cannot be done in a hurry. Third, parties are struggling to articulate a broad and exciting political narrative. Is there a larger story they have to tell, which can animate the voters? Can they articulate the zeitgeist?

The cabinet reshuffle and Congress party restructuring need to be seen in this context. It is very hard to make the case that the reshuffle signals the junking of old debris. Instead, it is an odd combination of caution, brazenness and political trifling. There is caution in the sense that there are no bold departures that promise a new beginning. There are new faces but no image makeover. Ajay Maken's promotion, independent charge for Pilot and Scindia in ministries that will require good judgement signal a step forward. But the pace of these promotions is still glacial. It is hard to shake off the feeling that young leaders cannot be given responsibility in a way that there is a risk of them overshadowing Rahul Gandhi. The culture of the Congress party is such that until the moment Rahul decides to genuinely lead, it will be hard for anyone else to stake out an independent track record of achievement.

There is brazenness in this sense. There is not even a nod to the public clamour for the system to be cleaned up. The petroleum ministry always operates under the whiff of undue corporate influence. One does not have to prejudge Veerappa Moily. But the manner in which ministers are shifted around in that ministry is succour for those who think national interest is not the paramount consideration in ministerial choice. The most significant statement of intent in this reshuffle is the probably the one least discussed: Kamal Nath's taking charge of parliamentary affairs. It at least signals an attempt to do hard political brokering in Parliament. It looks like both the BJP and the Congress, instead of cleaning up the stables, have decided to brazen out the anti-corruption movement. This is unfortunate, because it increases the risk of a hard landing for the political system.

The reshuffle is almost a form of political trifling. Many new faces are a nod to politically important states like Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. But it is hard to make the case that the inclusions in this cabinet are going to make a huge difference on the ground in these states. If anything, it leaves even more open the question of what the Congress presence on the ground will be like in these states.

From an administrative point of view, the significant change is not MEA. It was difficult to imagine the government not standing behind Salman Khurshid. He brings as good a resume for this position as any. Foreign policy is largely run by the PMO anyway and it is hard to see any change in direction. The intriguing change is HRD, arguably the single most important and treacherous portfolio in the cabinet. Both Pallam Raju and Shashi Tharoor, on the face of it, bring considerable talent. But whether they will be able to quietly transform the culture of the ministry, pay attention to institutions and fine detail rather than be mesmerised by half-baked flamboyance remains to be seen. The government has signalled continuity in key economic ministries. But ministries like power, railways and water are now crucial to growth. Is the signal of intent in these ministries good enough? Then there is the most important question for national television. Which Manish Tewari will we get? The Manish Tewari whose private member's bills are a model of good sense, or the Manish Tewari who justifies every expediency? Ajay Maken has a firm grip on urbanisation issues. But whether his relatively small ministry can make a in dent in Kamal Nath's building-driven conception of urbanisation remains to be seen.

But there is another interesting question. Rahul Gandhi will assume a formally more powerful role in the party. It was hard to imagine him joining the cabinet at this late stage for one simple reason: he could not be expected to show achievement in a short time, yet the risk of being saddled with the taint of government was high. But he has to recognise that the party cannot be revived if the government is in disarray. You cannot clean the party from the bottom up if the top reeks of abdication and corruption. While his dedication to the party is laudable, he is still saddled with the question: what exactly is his achievement? What does he stand for? He may have a reform by stealth strategy in mind. But the pace of political changes around him, and the colossal corruption mess that still needs to be reckoned with, make reform by stealth, if that is indeed what he is hoping to do, a high-risk strategy.

But even within the party there are issues. Power in parties is often exercised through invisible sinews. A key element in the power structure of the Congress was that the whole apparatus was built around shadowy figures like Ahmed Patel. These figures are, at one level, masters at the politics of brokerage. But there is increasing evidence that they are deeply out of touch with the governance demands of the time. The air of presumption they carry, the cynical view that politics is only about deals, and them being implicated in some of the more unsavoury aspects of political management, have now fettered the Congress from making a clean start. The real question is this: Is the formal shift of power to Rahul Gandhi also the harbinger of a new management style? The new establishment, such as it is, has less of the debris of the past to contend with. But does it have the hardnosed political instincts to reconnect with the people? Or will we replace a cynical, rotting order with a naive and ineffective one?

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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