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Rediff News  All News  » News » Cabinet rejig: The more things change, more they don't

Cabinet rejig: The more things change, more they don't

Last updated on: October 28, 2012 23:26 IST
During the Cabinet reshuffle, the "give and take" amongst the trio of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi has resulted in a new paradigm of power within the Congress and the government, notes Sheela Bhatt.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has taken the first combative step to gear up for the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

The UPA has tried to set the new agenda: downplay the noise from 2G scam, the coal-gate and the Vadra scam. Salman Khurshid, the minister in the centre of the controversy over corruption in a family-run NGO, has been elevated to the distinguished post of Union minister for external affairs, thus giving a Congress-style response to the anti-graft movement of India Against Corruption.

The promotion of Khurshid, who surely has the talent to lead the ministry, suggests that the Congress doesn't think the corruption will be the prime issue in its future fight against the anti-Congress parties.

After the expose of Robert Vadra's land deals with real estate magnate DLF, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has quickly taken a position on the broader issue of corruption where she has indicated that such allegations against Congress leaders, in the public domain, will not deter the party.

The elevation of Khurshid, and the exit of upright minister S Jaipal Reddy, says a lot about the current thinking of this government and the Congress party.

Reddy's exit from the ministry of petroleum and natural gas is a signal that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to show only the "friendly face" of his government to the corporate sector at a time of dwindling growth rate.

Reddy had done a few unimaginable things in the sensitive ministry. He took on industrialist and richest Indian Mukesh Ambani by questioning the bills that his company presented for gas exploration. In the energy sector, what is called "the $6.3 billion question" by Reddy, upset Reliance.

Reddy also wanted the KG Godavari basin project to come under the ambit of the comptroller and auditor general. The man deserved a salute, but has been kicked out of the ministry and is now posted in the ministry of science and technology.

The Cabinet reshuffle has also showed that the Congress has made up its mind to take head-on former partner Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and jailed YSR Congress Party supremo Jagan Mohan Reddy in the coming months.

The Congress is trying hard to cut its losses in Andhra Pradesh. It is pumping oxygen into the party by taking in six ministers from the state, as it wants to counter the clout of Jagan Mohan Reddy.

States like Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Karnataka, where the Congress is not in power, have been ignored in the rejig. Instead, plum posts have been given to members of Parliament from states where the party is ruling, like Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.

It is interesting to see how the "give and take" among the trio of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi has resulted in a new paradigm of power within the party and the government.

Rahul Gandhi's decision to stay away from joining the ministry, the exit of Ambika Soni, a leader with a sharp political sense, to work for the party, the surprise promotion of Khurshid, and the new balancing of younger generation and older generation leaders of the Congress shows that "positioning" is taking place within the party as the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family is about to formally take over the Congress.

The exit of Ambika Soni is expected to create excitement within the party set-up. When the Lok Sabha election is less than two years away, positions in the party become more important than heading the ministries.

Janardan Dwivedi, chairman of the Congress media committee, puts it nicely, when he says the ministry is "limited' like a dam on the river, but the party is like a sea.

"Here lots of more politics happens and pan-India activities go on."

And although it's too early to say, Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, may find his colleagues eyeing his position or even asking for a share in his power.

In fact, the Cabinet exercise and recent leaks and reports give the indication that Rahul Gandhi is now showing more consolidated clout. The party is trying to move forward from the phase that got them the shocking defeat in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

The good thing going for the battered Congress is that the psychological barrier of scams and taints is being counter-balanced by the alleged scam involving Bharatiya Janata Party chief Nitin Gadkari.

New power clusters are being created under Rahul Gandhi consisting of some new and some old leaders. Ambika Soni, Salman Khurshid and Ghulam Nabi Azad will be one such powerful cluster which is likely to emerge stronger now.

Ambika Soni has obviously not left the information and broadcasting ministry to merely become an in-charge of a couple of states or to be a general secretary.

It is clear that for Congressmen, more things will be happening in the party than in the government. Rahul Gandhi and a few of his favourites have preferred to stay out of the government. Dr Singh himself said that Rahul Gandhi is "preoccupied" and wants to strengthen the Congress party.

Today was a rare day notable for how pragmatism prevails in a party infamous for dynastic politics and centralised decision-making.

Neither Rahul Gandhi nor Dr Singh seems to have had his own way. If Dr Singh has been able to reward handsomely Ashwani Kumar (newly appointed Union law minister) or pushed for Pawan Kumar Bansal (as railways minister) and Shashi Tharoor (appointed minister of state in human resources and development ministry), Rahul's young brigade has also joined the Cabinet, although only in a moderate number, and that too at the middle level.

Sonia Gandhi has gone by her party's tested formula of accommodating the old and new generations with the balance tilting towards experience.

The Congress has tried to put "clean and so far untainted" faces in some crucial ministries. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the health minister, put it aptly that now the speculations are ending for good.

He said the old and new ministers will be able to focus on their work keeping in mind the 2014 general election.

"The regional and even religious considerations, which are necessary in a country like India, have been taken care of," he added.

After the swearing-in-ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were reluctant to speak to the press. Sonia was repeatedly asked about the "reshuffle in the party." She said it will be done in due course.

Rahul, when asked, "Why are you not taking the plunge?", said, "I have already taken the plunge", and jokingly added, "I am plunged into it!"

Will the Cabinet reshuffle help the Congress combat the dim future that it faces due to a weakening economy, price rise and allegations of various scams?

To arrest the party's slide the Union Cabinet should have vote-catchers, sons-of-the-soil, and strong leaders with deep roots in regional politics. If you see the 10 most powerful Congress ministers in the new Cabinet, one finds the answer.

The top portfolios of home, finance and defence have not been changed with the exception of MEA Khurshid.

Khurshid has a flair for foreign affairs, but his influence on UP's politics is limited. His wife Louise lost her deposit in the assembly election this year.

Out of the six new Cabinet ministers, Dinsha Patel and Harish Rawat do have a strong backing in their region and Ajay Maken has an urban presence in the national capital.

But Pallam Raju is a one-constituency wonder, while the less said about Ashwani Kumar and Chandresh Kumari the better.

Nothing has changed at the top in the Cabinet. Lots of camera-friendly faces have come in along with a few leaders like Rawat and Manish Tewari, who have slogged for the party for decades and are now getting their due before this government bows out. 

But, very soon we will find that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Image: Congress chief Sonia Gandhi speaks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the swearing-in ceremony of new ministers at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday

Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi