Is that all you’ve got, Dr Singh?


Just a cabinet reshuffle won’t do anything

There is a canyon-deep hollow at the heart of government, which echoes with the rhythm of banality. Two crises are corroding the nation’s stability. Septic corruption is coiled around the neck of the government, having risen to unimaginable rather than merely unprecedented heights. Calculations of malpractice and malfeasance are little consolation to a citizen battered by relentless news of the government theft exposed by government agencies. In Assam, violence is turning endemic under Congress watch; in Mumbai, racism skewers the rhetoric of Shiv Sena politicians who milk votes from animosity.

The UPA may not have run out of time, but it seems to have run out of ideas if a cabinet reshuffle represents the gamut of its imagination. An existentialist question must surely leave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh helpless: Shuffle whom to where? There is little talent left at his call. There is no hero armed with a magic wand, waiting in the wilderness, thirsting for a chance to rub shoulders with history. There is no one who can identify a thread stretched between Delhi and Guwahati, both ruled by Congress, and stitch together a policy framework that will stanch the bleeding in the North-east. His Government’s response to corruption is a shrug rearranged into combative postures; if our face is tarred with corruption, the BJP is also smudged. That may indeed be true, but how does it reduce the culpability of ministers who handed out coal blocks to tricolour or saffron cronies?

The only frisson of excitement is spurred by the prospect of Rahul Gandhi entering the portals of power by becoming a cabinet minister or working president of Congress. This begs a separate question. When in the last eight years has Rahul Gandhi ever been out of power? He has been the working president of the Congress whenever he has chosen to work.

Whenever he has taken a decision, it has been implemented, either at government or party level. He pushed, where he could, for a younger generation of chief ministers; and got them in Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh. He sought to revolutionise Congress through the Youth Congress. No one stopped him. He wanted to lead his party’s campaign in Bihar from the front, selecting candidates from a personal template. He did so. He chose to stake everything in his kitty on the prospect of a few seats more in Uttar Pradesh. He went ahead.

Each time the consequences were disappointing, if not disastrous. He was never held accountable. Rajiv Gandhi was never as powerful when his mother, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was prime minister. Dr Manmohan Singh began his second term as PM by offering to step down the moment Rahul Gandhi wanted the job. There has been some depreciation since then, and Dr Singh only expects Rahul Gandhi to join the cabinet. Every senior or junior Congress leader ritually anoints Rahul Gandhi heir and pride of Congress; it is the current version of an oath of loyalty. Rahul Gandhi can pick any portfolio he wants. He could become home minister this week and use his abilities to sort out Assam and Telangana, both of which will be at the top of his agenda if he becomes PM. Is there a single wish of Rahul Gandhi in these last eight years that has been thwarted? Not to my knowledge, which may of course be limited, but I would be glad to get an education.

It is an important moment in a young MP’s life when a prime minister invites him to join the government. But such an offer is quite meaningless to anyone who controls the cabinet, either directly or through a mother’s proxy.

If there is some fire in the works of a possible September reshuffle, then it comes from the states. Delhi, a rumour mill on an industrial scale, believes that Congress will change its chief ministers in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. If that be true, the reason will not be parental joy at the brilliance of award, but because all three are deemed to have failed. That is hardly the most ringing endorsement of talent. Failure might be a harsh verdict on Prithviraj Chavan, but the departure of Ashok Gehlot and Kiran Reddy is long overdue. So how does it help Dr Singh if they are shifted to Delhi? If they were competent they would not have failed. Gehlot and Reddy do not add value; they extract something from a diminished asset.

There is only one Congress leader, Mrs Sheila Dikshit, who would add stature to Dr Singh’s Cabinet, but then the government of Delhi would become too puny to withstand current storms. If Dr Singh does have some capability available, it is outside Congress. Sharad Pawar, for instance, would make a good home minister.

Thank God, said a wit, that I am not God. Perhaps Sharad Pawar, looking at the mess around him, tells himself something similar: Thank you, Prime Minister, that I am not Prime Minister.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.