The notion of a minister asking the prime minister to ‘lighten his load’ is a strange one in this country. Even when it becomes obvious that a minister may have taken on too much or is unable to perform due to whatever reason, the usual route is to keep up appearances, hold down a ministry even if it means facing flak from critics. A portfolio, especially an important one such as agriculture, is a coveted ministry and there have been more ‘traditional’ methods of keeping it while reducing one’s load than the one shown by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in his recent ‘request’ to the PM.
Theories about whether Mr Pawar is seeking a change of portfolio, a reduction in portfolios (he’s also in charge of the ministries of cooperation, consumer affairs, food and public distribution), or merely requesting additional assistance in the form of a second minister of state (MoS) are already being bandied about. But these are beside the point. A request has been made by Mr Pawar to his boss in the UPA government and the PM is likely to take a call in a week’s time. Two things have been placed on the table: one, Mr Pawar wants more time with his party, the Nationalist Congress Party, and he has shown seriousness in his new role as president of the International Cricket Council; two, that he did not make a specific request for a junior minister to share his responsibilities, something he may have done in the past. Without further ado, the PM should pick up the signs and relieve Mr Pawar of the Ministry of Agriculture.
That’s, of course, the easy part. At a time when opposition parties as well as critics within the UPA have been critical of the government’s handling of food prices, relieving Mr Pawar to make a political point is tempting but will not amount to much. Unless the already much multi-tasking and multi-tasked PM takes over the agriculture portfolio himself, he should choose a capable candidate. ‘Disinterested’ candidates or hopefuls looking for a ‘heavyweight portfolio’ should not be considered in order to fulfill a short-term round of political musical chairs. Whether it’s for health reasons or because of a change of priorities tied to his own political compulsions, Mr Pawar has been fair by asking his ‘burden to be lightened’ So let the next person in Krishi Bhavan be chosen for his or her abilities. He or she will definitely need to focus on a difficult job at hand.