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Cabinet rejig offers 3 potential prime ministers for 2014

August 01, 2012 17:34 IST
The decision to make these changes to the Union Cabinet was apparently taken last week, but the timing of its announcement could not have been more unfortunate, writes Neerja Chowdhury

The government has clearly decided to decentralise the powers that once vested in Pranab Mukherjee, now the country's Rashtrapati, and the latest Cabinet rejig only goes to underline it.  

P Chidambaram has moved to finance ministry, Sushil Kumar Shinde has taken his place in  home, and in all likelihood he will also be made the leader of the Lok Sabha, and AK Antony, who continues to be defence minister, is tipped to be number two in the Cabinet. The Tuesday reshuffle also shows that Sharad Pawar is unlikely to get defence in the larger September reshuffle which is on the cards.

The decision to make these changes was apparently taken last week, but the timing of its announcement could not have been more unfortunate.

To elevate the power minister as the home minister of India on a day large parts of the country experienced a frightening power blackout, of the kind which has never been seen anywhere in the world, involving 18 states, has naturally drawn flak.

At a time when the northern, eastern and northeastern grids were collapsing and the government needed to reassure the country that it had a grip over the situation, it went in for a change of power minister. That was not all. The new incumbent, Veerappa Moily, was given only "additional charge" of the power ministry, giving the impression that it might be an interim arrangement. To appoint a part-time power minister, when the power sector was crying out for immediate decisions and correctives, showed a bankruptcy of political thinking.

Clearly, Chidambaram has been brought back to finance to give a reassuring signal to corporate India, for whom Mukherjee had turned out to be bad news during the last year. With general elections less than two years away, Chidambaram was the only one who could have handled the ministry, given his familiarity with it. A new face would have taken at least a year to get to know the ropes. Certainly, the shift was calculated to go down well with India Inc which has been on the warpath against the United Progressive Alliance II government, and suspected to be behind some of its present travails -- giving its backing to civil society upsurge, from behind the scenes, and facilitating leaks from within the system.

The only other person who could have managed the situation, as far as the corporates were concerned, was the prime minister himself. For a while, after Mukherjee demitted office, it seemed  that Dr Manmohan Singh was interested in retaining finance. This was the impression he gave when he called the all-day meetings with C Rangarajan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Pulok Chatterji on the steps he proposed to take to move towards economic reforms which have been hanging fire and to review steps like GAAR and the retro tax against Vodafone which had sent bad vibes to investors in India and abroad.

But the proactive beginnings by the PM, and the identification of his "team" of bureaucrats, through whom he planned to move, fizzled out very quickly. It was obvious that the PM had run into difficulties and that Sonia Gandhi had other plans for finance.

Clearly, 'PC' could not have been appointed as FM without the backing of both  Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. That is why, while he will give signals calculated to hearten industry -- though he may not be able to move as fast on the "growth story" as he did during his first tenure as FM in UPA I -- he will not be able to do down the Food Security Bill and MNREGA, which some others in the Union Cabinet would like.

Sharad Pawar -- who has also been giving broad hints to industry that he is their man for the future -- has been openly arguing against both measures as being economically untenable. The PM too has not been enamoured of the idea of Food Security, and Sonia Gandhi would worry about the "Left of Centre" image of the party in the run-up to polls, even as the government is compelled to pursue some of the stalled reforms.

The impression that Chidambaram has been brought back to finance despite the opposition's onslaught against him, may also help 'PC' in his Lok Sabha election next time. As it is, an election petition is pending against him in the courts and it goes without saying that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would go out of  her way to make it difficult for him to win in 2014.

The reason for Sushil Kumar Shinde's shift to the home ministry is not far to seek, though the explanation given is that Maharasthra was completely peaceful during his reign as chief minister. Shinde is a trusted loyalist of 10, Janpath.

Mellower than Chidambaram, Shinde is known to be a man of 'consensus', and he has already made it clear that he would not go ahead with the National Counter-Terrorism Centre without taking the states on board. He has also made conciliatory noises on the way to tackle the Naxals, referring to the "social" causes which also need to be addressed.

The question, however, is: Can the rise of Shinde, a Dalit who has risen from the ranks of  a sub-inspector to become the home minister -- and that is remarkable in itself and a tribute to our democracy -- help the Congress play the Dalit card? Much would depend on how he handles his charge and how the Congress projects him.

As the chief minister of Maharashtra, Shinde had not cut much ice with the Dalits. But then the Congress is fighting with its back to the wall today and Rahul Gandhi is believed to have told friends three years ago that the Congress could not hope to get back its lost glory without winning back the support of the Dalits.

The latest reshuffle has brought to the fore three prime ministerial possibilities of the Congress, for 2014 -- if the mandate is a highly fractured one, and, if  despite its depleted numbers, the Congress is still in a position to lead a government, and more important, if Rahul Gandhi is not interested in donning the mantle in such a scenario. These three are Chidambaram, Shinde, and Antony.
Neerja Chowdhury