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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

The avoidable Cabinet reshuffle

April 07, 2008

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The repeatedly deferred and long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday night lacked an overarching political message, even though the inclusion of seven new ministers had an explanation at the micro-level.

Considering that it is the last year of the government before general elections in 2009 -- and they are now likely to take place next year given the spiraling price situation -- the exercise was expected to give a political thrust to the United Progressive Alliance.

But that has not happened. It is not as if the prime minister was undertaking the exercise in order to do a major jig-around and tone up administration and governance.

He has dropped ministers of state and inducted MoS, and it is hardly a secret that most MoS have been given very little work to do.

They have to be satisfied with the red light on their car, a better house and parliamentary questions to answer.

It is possible that Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has been given Communications and IT as MoS, and M S Gill who has been given independent charge of the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, will play a more proactive role.

Their entry in the ministry is one of the reasons for the expansion. There were powerful groups wanting the removal of Mani Shankar Aiyar from sports, and given his spats, his replacement has been on the cards for some time now.

Gill's elevation has taken the party by surprise since no election is due in Punjab and there are already several ministers from the state in the Dr Singh ministry, including the prime minister himself.

When Suresh Pachauri was appointed Pradesh Congress Committe chief in Madhya Pradesh -- he would naturally be the front runner for CM in the event of the party winning -- there was an understanding evolved with other important players in the state.

Arjun Singh's son Ajay Singh was immediately made the chief of the party's campaign committee, and it was understood that Jyotirditya Scindia would be taken into the Council of Ministers. The party has to close ranks with elections due in Madhya Pradesh later this year.

Normally, pressure from coalition partners is an important reason for Cabinet expansions.

This time, however, except for Raghunath Jha from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the expansion was limited to Congressmen.

Speculation had been rife about the induction of Kanimozhi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi's daughter.

Kanimozhi had ruled this out on the grounds that she was a recent entrant to the Rajya Sabha. Having burnt his fingers with the Maran brothers, it seems that Karunanidhi wants to move cautiously in maintaining a delicate balance within the family and would like his son M K Stalin to consolidate further before facilitating a ministerial berth for his daughter.

Even though rumours were rife, the induction of Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule, had not been on the cards.

It is interesting that while both Suresh Pachauri and Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi were made PCC chiefs in their respective states, Pachauri stepped down as minister of the Department of Personnel and Training while Dasmunsi retains Information and Broadcasting, while relinquishing charge of Parliamentary Affairs.

This is a signal sent by the Congress high command to the Left parties, with whom Dasmunsi has had a running battle.

Dasmunsi has also been an advocate of a Congress tie-up with Mamata Bannerji.

Undoubtedly, Pachauri was handicapped because he could not get re-elected from a state other than Madhya Pradesh in the recent Rajya Sabha elections.

There is a twist in the story about the induction of Dr Rameshwar Oraon and he will be MoS Tribal Affairs.

He is a tribal from Jharkhand and replaces another tribal M Gavit, who was axed. He is believed to have got his ministership at the instance of Lalu Prasad Yadav and though he is in the Congress, he is a former police officer from Bihar, who was close to Lalu Prasad.

Lalu Prasad is believed to have had a hand in keeping Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Shibu Soren out of the Cabinet.

Though the ostensible reason given is to keep a "tainted" minister out, there are many tainted ministers in the Cabinet -- many in Jharkhand believe that Lalu Prasad is trying to build a force parallel to the JMM in Jharkhand.

Having lost Bihar, he would like to call the shots in Jharkhand.

How Soren retaliates remains to be seen. Though "tainted", he has after all led a movement of tribals in Jharkhand.

Will he join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party? As it is, the BJP has been reaching out to Babulal Marandi, who is tipped to rejoin the saffron party. The latest reshuffle could have more than a ripple effect in Jharkhand.

Besides belonging to the Rahul Gandhi brigade of young MPs, being Brahmin also helped Jitin Prasad.

The Congress has now made up its mind to target Mayawati and try and dent her vote-base of Brahmins, Banias, Muslims and Dalits.

It sees a window of opportunity in UP since those disenchanted with the Bahujan Samaj Party are unlikely to turn to the BJP with Atal Bihari Vajpayee no longer at the BJP's helm of affairs and the party being led by a Thakur instead.

The real miss however was Sachin Pilot. His name was doing the rounds as a likely entrant and till the last moment he was expected to be in.

He had impeccable credentials -- belongs to poll-going Rajasthan, is from the powerful Gujjar community, and is young, articulate, clued on issues and politically savvy. But Santosh Bagrodia known for his money-raising skills was preferred.

More than the Rajasthan angle, Pilot's entry would have injected political meaning to the whole exercise and given a talking point to the party.

The induction of three young MPs -- Scindia and Prasad being the other two -- who are Rahul Gandhi's team would have marked not just a generational change in the Congress, but would have lent a new resolve to Rahul's yatras through the country.

It would have signaled that he was seriously getting ready to takeover in 2009. With just two entrants, the message got diluted and diffused. And it became a minor routine reshuffle.

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