New Delhi: Three months after its unexpectedly strong victory in the general election, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress party is going back to the drawing board to take a relook at its priorities, after a foreign policy slip-up in the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement with Pakistan, the spread of swine flu and rising food prices following the failure of the monsoon.
Among the options being considered is a cabinet reshuffle and expanding the team ahead of completing 100 days in power on 29 August. Rarely has the deck been reshuffled so early in the term of a government.
“The priorities of this government have changed now,” admitted a Congress cabinet minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity. While indicating the government had managed to move ahead from the “embarrassment” of the joint statement, the minister said: “Who knew that more problems like the drought, price rise and swine flu would come up. Now, the priority is to tackle all these.”
There is also a growing feeling within the Congress party that something dramatic needs to be done to revive political momentum. In the first few weeks after its electoral victory, the mood within the Congress party was buoyant. Its principal opponents, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were in disarray after huge losses.
While there is no official confirmation, discussions among senior Congress leaders suggest a reshuffle of some high-profile portfolios. However, there are other sections in the party who fear that this would be premature and further compound the government’s image deficit. Both ministerial performance and political priorities are factors. For example, food processing industries minister Subodh Kant Sahay may return to Jharkhand to lead the party in the coming state elections.
Similarly, there are some discussions that in the portfolios held by coalition partners, crucial ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M.K. Alagiri, minister for chemicals and fertilizers and son of Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, is keen to return to state politics. Speculation is also rife that either M. Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter, or former minister T.R. Baalu may replace him.
However, Kanimozhi said no such decision was taken. “We all are busy with the by-election (in Tamil Nadu where the main Opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has decided to boycott polls). He (Alagiri) is also busy with that,” Kanimozhi said.
Another key ally, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who has 19 members of her party in the Lok Sabha, has already told the Prime Minister that her party had decided to nominate Sudhip Bandyopadhyay as its new representative in the council of ministers.
A cabinet reshuffle will also provide an opportunity for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to regain some of the political ground that he conceded after the mix-up involving Pakistan. The Prime Minister and his government came under fire from the Opposition and some allies for what they claim is a “surrender” of national interest in the joint statement, which had de-linked composite dialogue with Pakistan from Islamabad’s action against terrorists operating from its soil, and also included a controversial reference to trouble-hit Balochistan. The Congress leadership, too, had distanced itself from these references in the statement signed by Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Egypt on 16 July.
The UPA government has also been struggling with the spread of swine flu, which has already claimed 21 lives.
Singh has already sent warning signals to the states that the country was facing a tough situation due to deficient rainfall and growing inflationary pressures. The Congress party has also expressed its concern over the situation and demanded “concrete steps to control prices and increase the production and availability of pulses, oil seeds and sugar to ensure there is no shortage”.
This is in contrast to the UPA’s 100-day agenda set out by President Pratibha Patil in her address to the joint session of Parliament after the 15th Lok Sabha was constituted. These included acceleration of domestic growth to counter the effects of global slowdown, modernization of infrastructure, initiating the enactment of a food security Bill and introduction of a Women’s Reservation Bill to provide 33% reservation for women in Parliament and legislative assemblies.
Several cabinet ministers, especially those of agriculture, human resource development, minority affairs and rural development, had laid out ambitious 100-day agendas. While the UPA tabled a growth-oriented Budget, it has struggled in moving fresh legislation in the just-concluded session of Parliament.
Subrata Mukherjee, professor in the department of political science at the Delhi university, feels that the 100-day agendas were an attempt to “please” voters, who have given the UPA an impressive victory.
“But when they started facing the realities, the priorities have been changed. Swine flu is a passing phenomena and nobody could do anything to escape it, but the deficient monsoon is going to trouble this government even next year. Also, sky-rocketing prices have started hurting everyone and the government is really worried about it,” he said.