After completing 50 years in a state assembly, it is understandable for even the most focused of regional stalwarts to confuse chief ministership for prime ministership. So one should not be too harsh towards Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi for going ahead and announcing that V Radhika Selvi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will be sworn in as a central minister later this week. Unfortunately, the real Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, does not have that luxury. If he is the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s head, the people of this country would insist that he takes a call on who joins the Union ministry. Even the earlier episode of Dayanidhi Maran ‘quitting’ his job as the Union Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications exposes the unsettling fact that Mr Singh may not be the man who is responsible for the guest list for his own garden party. Mr Maran left the ministry because of ‘family problems’ (read: DMK problems) at home. This is not how a prime ministerial team is supposed to function.
Lest anyone accuses us of forgetting that it is a UPA government, not a Congress government, at the Centre, let us be clear that coalition politics is a marriage of convenience. In such a set-up, negotiations and even threats are par for the course. But when there is an overriding tendency for an ally to use his bloc of ministers from his party as a ‘transferable vote’, the marriage of alliance begins to smack of domestic violence. If the Congress President, for instance, had simply issued a letter to the Prime Minister — also a Congressman — stating that one partyman would be replaced by another as a central minister, one would view the short-cut taken as an imperious gesture that makes a mockery of the healthy division between the ruling party and government. For the very same reason, the DMK doesn’t make the decisions of who stays and who goes from the central ministership. The Prime Minister does.
No one is naive enough to believe that Manmohan Singh ticks the list of UPA ministers, impervious to inter-party and intra-coalition considerations. But if merit and performance are totally overwhelmed by politics, and appointments are made simply according to interchangeable party blocs constructed in state capitals, choosing ministers at the Centre will look perilously similar to how a lot of MPs get their tickets.