The reshuffle of the Union Cabinet has demonstrated that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was clearly influenced by the views of the Congress high command while allocating portfolios for two key ministries. The reshuffle was as much about bringing in AK Antony, whose integrity and honesty is beyond doubt, to the Ministry of Defence as it was about giving the External Affairs portfolio to Pranab Mukherjee, who was, at one time, tipped to take over as deputy Prime Minister as per speculation in political circles.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi scotched rumours of the appointment of a deputy PM, at the Nainital conclave. Now, by shifting Mukherjee to a new job, the Prime Minister has conveyed a strong message that there was no move to elevate the status of any member of the Cabinet. Mukherjee is expected to bring in his rich experience to the post, which he earlier held during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime for a period of 15 months. It will certainly help restore equity to the ministry, thus ending the domination of the PMO in the formulation of foreign policy.
His seniority and status as leader of the House in the Lok Sabha will ensure that PMO officials, associated with the making of foreign policy, will show greater regard to the MEA’s viewpoint. With his standing as a key person in the decision-making processes of successive Congress governments, Mukherjee has a degree of clout enjoyed by no other foreign minister in recent times. His shifting also indicates that there were never any plans to elevate his status.
The selection of Antony has been influenced by the fact that the Defence Ministry, embroiled as it was in the recent controversy over the purchase of Barak missilies during the NDA rule, is now headed by Mr Clean himself. However, there is also a viewpoint that Antony’s choice for the Defence Minister’s post has not been the best one, since the former Kerala Chief Minister may not be able to speak the idiom that jawans and defence officers are familiar with. He would have been an asset in a ministry with social justice dimensions or could even have excelled in the Home Ministry. But obviously, Antony has been chosen because of his impeccable credentials and to convey the signal that the Congress wants transparency in the Cabinet.
The second and more important signal sought to be conveyed through Antony’s appointment is that people of integrity will be encouraged to be a part of the government. Those already in the council of ministers, and unable to emulate the virtues common to the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister, may face the risk of being dropped in the future. In fact, Antony will perfectly complement the PM and the two will help in giving the government an honest image. This is not to suggest that others are dishonest, but the high standards set by these two would form the basis for future image projections.
The reshuffle has also demonstrated that the party is stronger than ever before. The government cannot ignore its basic views, whether in the sphere of ministry-making or in policy formulation. At Nainital, Sonia Gandhi had stated that the party was not opposed to SEZs. But, that care should be taken to ensure that prime agricultural land was not acquired for the purpose. Soon after this, the government changed its position regarding SEZs and those who were initially very vocal on the subject, all of a sudden, seemed to agree with her. In an interview on Saturday, she denied that the SEZ policy was cleared by her. Even though she said that she did not expect every ministry to clear things with her, it is evident that the ramifications of not doing so would be strong and wide-ranging and could put some ministers or policy supporters in an embarrassing position.
The reshuffle seems to have had a limited purpose. Both the Congress president and the PM have left several questions about regional, coalition and generational imbalances unresolved. There is a view that some states are over-represented in the Cabinet vis-a-vis others. On the induction of younger leaders, Sonia has already made it known that she would prefer that they gain more experience before they are crowned. This is rightly so. Experience plays an important role in understanding governance — and only experienced youngsters had been rewarded.
Ajay Maken, for instance, was elected thrice to the Delhi Assembly and was parliamentary secretary to the Chief Minister, a minister and the Speaker before he defeated Jagmohan in the New Delhi constituency. There was no hesitation in choosing him for a ministerial berth. Similarly, Bharat Solanki was sent to Gujarat as the PCC president because he too had past experience. There seems to be a well chalked-out strategy where younger MPs will be given important positions only when they are acquainted with unfamiliar areas.
Coalition imbalance may remain as these are compulsions of realpolitiks. For instance, all major portfolios in the government other than the railways and agriculture are with the Congress. This may continue for the time being. Apart from its higher numbers of MPs, the Congress has to ensure the PM’s comfort level in the allocation of portfolios.
The reshuffle is certainly a precursor to a bigger one at a time nearer to the assembly elections. It also may now lead to changes in the party organisation and pave the way for the appointment of new governors. But the Sonia-PM team, flanked by Mukherjee, Antony and others symbolises stability of the coalition as well as the fact that there are no contradictions within the government and the party. Between us.