The new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is likely to face its first test within a few days. This will happen when a decision is to be made on the allocation of ministries. Handing over ministries to persons of doubtful integrity or those with poor administrative skills is certain to belie expectations of good governance from the UPA.
The possibility of this eventuality arises on two fronts. One, allies from parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Nationalist Congress Party, among others. Two, from within the Congress to “accommodate” politically influential but administratively disastrous individuals. If recent history is any guide, the bigger threat is from the allies. In the case of the Congress, the combine of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi should be able to keep troublemakers at bay.
So far, the division of ministerial labour within the UPA has been to keep the four “big” portfolios (home, defence, external affairs and finance) with the Congress and distribute other ministries to allies. This has proved detrimental to the country. Ministries such as agriculture, telecom, railways and oil and gas require care and attention which they have not received in the last five years. There is no point in going over the mess created in telecom and agriculture, either due to malfeasance or plain incompetence.
Fine-tuning in portfolio allocation is required for another reason: the political division of labour between Gandhi and Singh. In the last government, there were politically powerful ministers who not only tried to sow discord between the party and the government, but also initiated bad policies that served India badly. Singh and Gandhi could do little as they were caught between the pincers of demanding allies and Congress leaders who knew the duo could not touch them.
This is a changed time, and both Singh and Gandhi are on a much stronger wicket. Troublemaking Congressmen (and women) should be swept aside. The allies should be given portfolios where the potential for damage is minimal. This may not placate the allies. One way out would be to give them cabinet rank while allocating a relatively “harmless” portfolio. All that is required is some hard bargaining and some arm-twisting.
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