Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that the Wednesday cabinet reshuffle will be followed by “a more expansive exercise”.
The reshuffle is clearly linked to the growing public anger against drift in governance and mounting evidence of corruption. The big changes have been in ministries that have been touched by allegations about dishonesty and crony capitalism: oil, aviation, roads and sports.
The Congress till now has preferred to either brush aside the problems or divert public attention. A spokesperson had made an astonishing claim after the Comptroller and Auditor General had indicted then telecom minister A. Raja, saying her party had to respect coalition dharma. Rahul Gandhi said earlier this month that the compulsions of a coalition government made inflation control a difficult task. The issue of Hindu terror— undoubtedly a genuine problem —was brought up to give the nation and television channels something else to talk about besides corruption.
Given this background, the latest cabinet reshuffle is welcome, especially if it is a first step towards more meaningful changes. The allies have been put in their place. The message has gone out that the Congress is taking a firmer grip on the reins. What needs to be seen is if the ruling party has enough political and administrative depth to bring in fresh faces and new agendas when the promised next round of changes is made.
A dramatic change in the composition of the cabinet would be welcome, though the Congress NextGen led by Rahul Gandhi has yet to make a mark in national policy debates. Their age is hardly the issue. Most are in the same age group as David Cameron and Nick Clegg, who between them lead the British government. The mishandling of the protests in Kashmir last year by the Omar Abdullah government is an indictment of an entire new generation of politicians, who are well qualified, articulate, but curiously shallow on the important issues before the nation.
It is an Indian delusion that all is well once good people are at the helm. We have to be realistic. Eventually, rational politicians try to maximize votes and protect interest groups. What India really needs is institutional reform to curb the misuse of power by politicians and bureaucrats, through a system of checks and balances. Empowering the Lokayuktas would be an obvious first step.
Manmohan Singh has been an ineffectual Prime Minister, but a brave plan to reform government and governance could be his big chance to show leadership and conviction.
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