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Where is Rahul Gandhi going?

August 22, 2012 21:32 IST

'Rahul Gandhi is one of the few in the UPA with the political clout to carry out those much-needed reforms in the railway and power ministries, even if it means bruising a lot of egos in the short-term...

Becoming a minister without portfolio is undoubtedly the safer option, but if there is no pitfall neither is there the opportunity of solid achievement,' says T V R Shenoy.

Pranab Mukherjee has gone to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Where is Rahul Gandhi going?

Why is this important? Because the Congress is ruling the country, will continue to rule up to 2014, and the entrance of Rahul Gandhi into the Union Cabinet may be the only prod that can jolt the Manmohan Singh ministry out of its current do-nothing mood.

Congressmen have been clamouring for the 'Crown Prince' to assume greater responsibilities at least since 2009, if not before -- 'greater responsibilities' being the Congress code for either working president of the party, or a suitably senior post in the Union Cabinet.

The 'Yuvraj' used to duck those responsibilities on the grounds that he was more interested in rebuilding the Congress on the ground, an explanation that stopped being aired after the Congress debacle in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls. And on July 19, Rahul Gandhi ended the suspense by saying, 'I will play a more active role in the party and the government.'

So, where -- meaning, to which ministry -- is Rahul Gandhi going?

Many in the Congress believe that Rahul Gandhi should be eased into the top job -- meaning that of Dr Manmohan Singh -- by being inducted as a minister without portfolio, possibly with the additional charge of being Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha. This is a bit silly.

I have no idea who shall lead the National Democratic Alliance in the next general election. The conventional wisdom, however, is that it shall be either Narendra Modi or Nitish Kumar. The two may, for all I know, have conflicting personal philosophies, but what they share is a reputation as excellent administrators, men who know how to put the bulky machinery of government to work.

Assuming that he will be up against either of the two, what is there in Rahul Gandhi's resumé to give Indians any confidence that he can actually govern? What is he going to learn as a minister without portfolio, whether or not it is coupled with the office of Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha?

In 1942 the energetic Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps joined Winston Churchill's wartime coalition government as Lord Privy Seal (a meaningless job) and Leader of the House. This is what Churchill wrote of that experience in his memoirs: '...an exalted brooding over the work of others is only too often the lot of a minister without departmental duties. His great intellectual energy needed to be harnessed to a more practical task.' (Churchill moved Cripps to the ministry of aircraft production -- vital in wartime -- where he was both happy and successful.)

Leaving open the question of whether the Nehru-Gandhi scion possesses similar 'great intellectual energy', where could Rahul Gandhi be best employed?

Let me quote the prime minister from this August 15 speech, 'We need to speedily improve our infrastructure. Recently we have taken new measures to accelerate infrastructure development. Ambitious targets have been fixed in roads, airports, railways, electricity generation and coal production.'

The ministry of roads is not in bad hands today; Kamal Nath is a dynamo compared to his predecessor, the DMK's T R Baalu. And the civil aviation ministry, whether under a Praful Patel or an Ajit Singh, is going to be ineffective until the Cabinet as a whole takes a policy decision on whether an airline must fall if it cannot fly.

That, however, leaves those other infrastructure bugbears -- power and railways.

The whole 'will-he-go, won't-he-go?' over Dinesh Trivedi's railway budget hid the larger issue, which is that Indian Railways is in a mess. Both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee went in for eye-catching populism, meaning raising freight charges while refusing to increase passenger fares.

This is precisely the opposite of the accepted global practice; raising freight rates has a cascading effect on the larger economy, ultimately hitting far more people than railway passengers.

Dinesh Trivedi laid out the consequences of this stupidity: '...the Railways has been operating at a loss ever since fares stopped going up, but more so in the last five years. The most recent annual loss was Rs 20,000 crore.'

What are the consequences? To quote Trivedi again: 'We have rats, we have cockroaches, there's the problem of safety, it's not modernised, so we are running fifty years behind the world. The tracks develop cracks every other day. Signalling is as old as one can think of. It needs to be modernised. If I do not take care of the track and signalling I will not be able to address safety and increase the speed.'

How about the power ministry? Dr Manmohan Singh promised from the ramparts of the Red Fort that his government would provide electricity to every household in the country in the next five years. How?

Through nuclear power? Putting up more solar plants? Raising more hydro-power facilities? Or by sticking to fossil fuels? Moving beyond generation, will consumers be asked to pay the full price of power, or will subsidies continue?

The truth is that the Manmohan Singh ministry simply does not have an energy policy. In fact, the structure of the government is such that it is almost impossible to lay out a roadmap for the future.

There is a power minister, currently held by M Veerappa Moily (jointly with the corporate affairs portfolio). The coal ministry -- coal generates most of India's electricity -- is held by Sriprakash Jaiswal. The ministry of petroleum and natural gas -- alternatives to coal -- operates under S Jaipal Reddy. Finally, the minister for new and renewable energy is Dr Farooq Abdullah. Each is a full-fledged Cabinet minister -- not a minister of state -- who jealously guards his own fief.

How do you create a coherent energy policy out of that?

Rahul Gandhi is one of the few in the UPA with the political clout to carry out those much-needed reforms in the railway and power ministries, even if it means bruising a lot of egos in the short-term. Becoming a minister without portfolio is undoubtedly the safer option, but if there is no pitfall neither is there the opportunity of solid achievement.

Let us assume, however, that Rahul Gandhi fails to do a good job as either railway minister or as power minister. Will that make any difference?

Pranab Mukherjee presided over a downturn in the Indian economy -- and became President of India. Sushil Kumar Shinde presided over the two greatest grid collapses in history -- and was elevated to the home ministry. (Here is a headline I never expected to see on the website of The New York Times: 'Rate India's Outgoing Power Minister', after he rated himself, post grid collapse, as 'excellent'.)

Should Rahul Gandhi flop in one of the great infrastructure ministries then, by the Congress's logic, that should make him an 'excellent' prime minister.

You can read more columns by T V R Shenoy here.

T V R Shenoy