July 5, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Two ministers the Cabinet can do without

Congratulations are in order to the new finance minister and the new external affairs minister, to Shatrughan Sinha, to Vinod Khanna, and all the new entrants into the Union Council of Ministers. But, above all, congratulations to the prime minister for the two faces that were notably not there at Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 1 -- Mamata Banerjee and Farooq Abdullah.

The two may or may not join the Vajpayee ministry at some future date, but they did not deserve to get ministerial posts after throwing tantrums. Ironically, Abdullah and Banerjee's names were among the first that made the rounds when talks of a reshuffle began almost three months ago. [The war scare with Pakistan made it a lesser priority for a while.]

Whatever they may say today, both Mamata Banerjee and Farooq Abdullah made no secret of their desire to sit at the Cabinet table. The dilemma was that they both wanted specific portfolios, and refused to settle for anything less. This was little more than blackmail, an usurpation of the privileges bestowed upon the prime minister by the Constitution and by tradition.

I am not quite sure why they tried such blackmail on the prime minister. Much the same tactics were tried by Jayalalithaa in 1998-1999, during the last Vajpayee government; she too tried to insist on plum portfolios of her choice going to men whom she had picked. [She wanted, for instance, Dr Subramanian Swamy to get the Ministry of Finance.] None of it worked for Jayalalithaa -- and that was when the Vajpayee ministry was far more precariously placed than it is today. So, why did Mamata Banerjee and Farooq Abdullah believe they could pull it off today?

Coming down to specifics, I think Farooq Abdullah would have been a poor choice as external affairs minister even if he hadn't queered his own pitch by trying a spot of blackmail. Many of his supporters said it would have been something of a coup if India had a Kashmiri Muslim as her external affairs minister. This is silly on both counts.

First, India doesn't need to go out of her way to prove her 'secular' credentials by putting a Muslim in the top job. Second, it is absurd to give anyone such a sensitive post for no better reason than his or her religion. Third, nobody in the rest of the world would care much anyway. Fourth, and finally, India has begun moving out of the obsession with Pakistan as the beginning and end of her foreign policy; there are more issues than Kashmir, and more nations with which to discuss them than Pakistan.

Moving on from Abdullah as the archetype of the Kashmiri Muslim to Abdullah the man, is the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir really the man for the job? Farooq Abdullah is one of those ultra-emotional characters, someone who starts weeping at the slightest provocation, or loses his temper equally easily. That is not exactly a qualification for a diplomat. Again, in three stints as chief minister he has never shown any particular administrative talents.

Finally, how much sense does it make to take in a man who has been swearing by autonomy for his state, and then make him India's representative to the world?

I have much the same objections to Mamata Banerjee. She too is a bit emotional and has never shown any talent for the nuts and bolts of administration. And she too has persistently refused to grow, in the sense that she has no truly national perspective. Everything begins and ends with Kolkata. [It isn't even West Bengal as a whole.]

Mamata Banerjee wanted the railway ministry as a pre-condition for joining the Union Cabinet. This is precisely what she threw away when she walked out of the ministry over the Tehelka Tapes controversy. This was never more than an excuse; the real reason was that Mamata Banerjee was desperate for a tie-up with the Congress in the run-up to the West Bengal assembly polls. [She thought an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party would pay fewer dividends.] So, why should Nitish Kumar be asked to yield his portfolio to reward the notoriously whimsical Trinamool Congress boss?

Mamata Banerjee's face-saving excuse this time around is as unconvincing as the reason she gave for leaving the ministry. She says she chose to stay out on principle, as a mark of protest against the bifurcation of Eastern Railways. Tell me, how often over the past couple of months have you heard the Trinamool Congress making an issue of this?

[I am sure Nitish Kumar's decision was not uninfluenced by the fact that he is from Bihar, but then Mamata Banerjee's 'protest' is nothing more than mofussil politics. I would love to know, by the way, how many voters in West Bengal care about such an esoteric issue. I haven't, for instance, heard the Marxist chief minister make a big deal about it. Incidentally, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has rubbished Mamata Banerjee's claim that she alone can present Bengal's interests to Delhi; he and his finance minister, he said dryly, do so daily.]

Being in the Union Cabinet is to be under a spotlight continually. Some grow, others wither away. For instance, most people agree that Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran does a good job of representing India, and that Power Minister Suresh Prabhu takes care of India's needs as a whole. The first is a DMK man and the second is from the Shiv Sena, but both walk a fine line between keeping a national perspective and guarding the interests of their own states.

It is a lesson neither Mamata Banerjee nor Farooq Abdullah have imbibed. The exigencies of politics may mean that both join the Union Cabinet at some point, but the question remains: how effective shall they be given their deliberately limited perspective?


Advani is the man to watch
What makes Yashwant Sinha so indispensable?
The Cabinet Reshuffle

T V R Shenoy

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