By Jyoti Malhotra
It was to arrest the impression of drift and poor governance that has dogged his government that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reshuffled his Cabinet last week, dropping seven ministers and inducting eight new faces.
But by refusing to touch the Big Four – the ministries of external affairs, defense, home, and finance – the Prime Minister indicated that he preferred stability to risk-taking. And although he elevated some ministers such as environment minister Jairam Ramesh to the rural development portfolio, and brought in new faces such as Jayanthi Natarajan to head the environment ministry, the reshuffle has hardly succeeded in raising the soufflé.
The Prime Minister also announced there would be no more such exercises until the general election that will be held within three years. Political analysts said the dharma of the 22-party coalition government which he leads forced Mr. Singh to sacrifice merit for other considerations like caste, seniority and regional representation.
The new, lackluster team has also provoked questions about the degree to which Mr. Singh was in charge of the exercise. Or was it, as the capital’s gossip mill speculated, a typical move by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, which ensured that the government kept a balance between the free-market bent of one part of the government (led by the prime minister) and the pro-poor inclinations of the other.
This inherently strained power dynamic between Ms. Gandhi and Mr. Singh, who has never been directly elected by the people, arguably lies at the heart of the apparent lack of direction that has engulfed the government’s image.
Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser to the prime minister and now editor of the “Business Standard,” talked of this dissonance in an interview with NDTV last week.
“The essence is that the political authority the prime minister must exercise, that he is unable to do, (is) because of the nature of the political arrangement,” he said.
Mr. Baru implied that Mr. Singh was not able to take tough decisions because the party, led by Ms. Gandhi, objected to them.
The Congress party immediately distanced itself from Mr. Baru’s remarks, but the impression of a weak prime minister remains. After all, it was to assert his authority that Mr. Singh had met recently with senior journalists. He answered a wide range of questions. But one remark stood out: “I am not a lame-duck prime minister,” he said. As one political analyst put it: “The fact that the PM had to defend his position as the leader of the government speaks volumes about his position in the party.”
This stretches back to the reason Mr. Singh got the top job in the first place: After winning in 2004, Ms. Gandhi, the party’s leader, felt she would come under attack because of her Italian birth. So Mr. Singh, who had a reputation of personal integrity and was acceptable to Congress’s coalition partners, was installed instead. But for the first time the leader of the victorious party was not prime minister. He was on the throne, but she was behind it.
Although the Congress-led government was voted back in 2009, this time with Mr. Singh as its public face, in recent months it has seemed to lose its sheen, overwhelmed by several scandals and a lack of progress on reforms, legislation and new programs.
Two senior leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham party, a key coalition partner, have been arrested for allegedly accepting bribes for doling out precious spectrum for mobile telephony. (They deny the charges.) Several corporate leaders have also been arrested as part of the same scandal. Meanwhile, a Congress leader is in jail for allegedly accepting kickbacks from a company which sold equipment for last year’s Commonwealth Games. (He also denies wrongdoing.)
In the national press, the prime minister began to be accused of running one of the most corrupt governments in history.
Harish Khare, the PM’s media adviser, says the government deserves credit for acting against those accused of wrongdoing. “For the first time in independent India, Cabinet ministers and corporates are in jail together,” he said. “Those who stole from the nation’s coffers are behind bars.”
Still, the perception lingers that Mr. Singh remains uncertain about the big picture in his second incarnation as prime minister.
According to Dipankar Gupta, social anthropologist and political scientist, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition has failed to leverage the goodwill that brought it back to power in 2009.
“There was a lot of hope when it came back to power, but it has seemed to fritter away all its gains,” he said. He noted that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee program was supposed to be fine-tuned and the reform drive was to be accelerated. But the UPA instead has appeared reactive rather than pro-active, in his view. “Any politician knows that to appear successful, he must appear decisive. But the UPA has failed to set the agenda,” Mr. Gupta said.
That said, Mr. Gupta doesn’t point to the Gandhi-Singh dynamic as a fault line. Rather, he believes the division of labor between the two has worked well, as one manages party affairs and the other the affairs of state.
“I don’t think the two are working at cross-purposes. The Congress party buys into the PM’s economic reform agenda quite substantially and Sonia Gandhi has decided she will stay away from the hustle-bustle of daily governance. For public consumption, they play good cop-bad cop rather well,” Mr. Gupta added.
But an associate of the prime minister’s, who did not want to be named, said he strongly believed the Congress party had stymied the PM’s vision. Mr. Singh only got his way, the associate said, when he threatened dire consequence, such as his threat to resign if Congress didn’t back him on supporting the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008.
“He often wants to do things in his own way, but doesn’t get enough support from the party,” the associate said. He noted that recent comments from Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh that Rahul Gandhi will soon be elevated to the premiership further undermined Mr. Singh’s authority.
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Mr. Khare, the PM’s media adviser, said under Mr. Singh’s watch the country had experienced 20 years of economic reform (he was finance minister when the reform drive began) and that those years have created high expectations, not only in the increasingly prosperous middle class but in rural India. “The point is,” Mr. Khare said. “There is no vacancy at the top.”
Not until 2014, anyway.
Jyoti Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for India’s Business Standard daily and for Pakistan’s Express Tribune.
Via: India Real Time