It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reshuffle, dictated and shaped by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and with (but of course) a Rahul Gandhi stamp on it. So while the average age of the United Progressive Alliance's council of ministers did not come down sufficiently, a couple of ministers associated with Rahul Gandhi got a "leg up", as a television anchor put it so succinctly, as ministers of state with independent charge.
Prime Minister Singh declared that this was the last reshuffle before the elections in 2014. And the elections, he said, would be held as scheduled and not a day earlier. Excellent news, except for the fact that as the weeks roll by the Congress might not remain in a position to determine the poll dates, with circumstances passing the initiative into the hands of the Opposition and even some of the allies.
So what has the reshuffle before the polls achieved? It has got in some representation at a senior level from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, although it is unlikely that this sop will cut into Narendra Modi's popularity in Gujarat or act as a substitute for the emotive Telengana issue. Cabinet composition can only be an add-on to action taken, and not replace action as the Congress leadership is clearly hoping for.
The loudest message perhaps is in the appointment of Salman Khurshid as the Union minister of external affairs, particularly as the move has followed allegations in the media about financial malpractices in a trust for the disabled run by the minister and his wife. The India against Corruption team led by Arvind Kejriwal took these allegations into the field, leading to a direct confrontation with Minister Khurshid who dared the activist to enter his parliamentary constituency and return from there. The anger was palpable as the normally affable Khurshid lost his temper on more than one occasion and issue threats that made even those who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, critical of his position.
In elevating him from the law ministry to the foreign office, the Congress leadership has tried to cock a snook at Kejriwal, a sort of combative and defiant, 'We will now do what you want, you can carry on screaming.' Clearly the decision has also been inspired by the direct attack on Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra by the anti-graft activists, with the party and the government making it clear that far from taking action, or waiting for enquiry reports, they will unilaterally 'reward' their own for standing up to Kejriwal and the rest. And they have chosen not to believe all these allegations hurled by the IAC members and sections of the media, and will decide on the honesty or otherwise of their party leaders (and of course, relatives).
Well, that is the prerogative of the party and its leadership. More so when the Congress party has been caught under a wave of scams, relying more on the short memory of the 24-hour news channels, than on any substantive proof that the accused ministers and leaders are indeed innocent of the charges leveled against them. Kejriwal can at best rant and rail, and go to Farrukhabad or Rae Bareli but if the government chooses to ignore him there is little he can do to ensure remedial action in any form. After all he and Anna Hazare did try for a Lokpal Bill that has failed to see the light of day. And Hazare being old and not in the best of health seems to have given up the fight, at least for now.
But the Congress has forgotten that there is another trial ahead, and that is by the people of India. This might be as scheduled in 2014, or earlier as many regional parties continue to predict. But the party will have to go to the people's court, and at the moment the green flag that brought it to power for two consecutive terms has turned dangerously red. Corruption has not been a major issue with the poor masses of India in the past simply because they live with it on a daily basis. The moment they have to go to the local administration and government for any little work, be it papers for their land, recruitment into the police, an application for a government job, they have to pay. And they are so used to this that they do not really bother with corruption as an election slogan, looking at other issues to determine their vote.
But this has changed. And judging from the almost juvenile reactions from the Congress leaders on the Vadra and Khurshid issues, it is clear that they have not understood this at all. The poor voter is fed up of corruption. Completely and totally fed up because he has linked it now to price rise, to underdevelopment, to the lack of opportunities he is being forced to live with. Television gives him a glimpse into the other world of fast cars and luxury goods, and even the village elder who had resigned himself to a life of penury is visibly upset and angry. A tour of Uttar Pradesh constituencies during the assembly elections this year gave one a glimpse of this real sentiment that poured out from the young and the old across the state.
The Congress attitude is baffling. One expects political parties that have to face the people to be humble, or at least less arrogant; to understand the people's aspirations and meet these; to be sensitive to the criticism and tackle it with a gentle hand. Instead the Congress today seems to be making a fetish of being arrogant, anti-people and totally out of tune with the ground reality. Its spokespersons -- one of its loudest being rewarded in this reshuffle -- do not rebut charges with a modicum of dignity, and instead enter the ring provided by the overeager television channels with the attitude of street-fighters.
All in all a sad, directionless reshuffle reflecting a poor level of politics.