New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh only tweaked his cabinet line-up on Wednesday, stepping back from a major reshuffle that would have revamped the image of a government hit by graft scandals and year-high food inflation.
Major portfolios like finance, defence, home and foreign affairs and environment were unchanged in the first cabinet reshuffle of Singh’s second term of office.
Many of the changes were seen as relating to poor performance by certain ministers rather than efforts to refresh the government’s image as it heads to key state elections that threaten to weaken the troubled ruling government coalition.
“The big picture from this is that there is only a bit of shuffling around here and there but no major expectations have been met -- no young blood injected, no corruption-tainted names dropped,” said D.H. Pai Panandiker, head of private think RPG Foundation.
Stock markets were closed when the reshuffle was announced while bonds and the rupee currency were unmoved.
Kamal Nath, Union minister for surface transport and highways was moved to another ministry after criticism he moved too slowly in building new roads crucial for sustainable development and ability to compete with China.
The minor changes may fuel a perception that Singh is lost for ideas after failing to push big ticket economic reforms like freeing up diesel prices and streamlining taxes, or measures to contain inflation and clamp down on endemic graft.
In one signal that the government wanted to clean up its image, Singh removed his sports minister M.S. Gill, criticised for overseeing a Commonwealth Games ridden by corruption scandals and embarrassing India around the world.
But business-friendly petroleum minister Murli Deora was replaced by Jaipal Reddy, who headed the urban development ministry earlier. He was one of those responsible for running the Commonwealth Games in October and had to fend off scathing criticism of the organisation, infrastructure and facilities.
A tide of anger over corruption and prices of staples threatens to strain the Congress Party’s ties with its increasingly worried party allies in the run-up to state elections this year and a general election due by 2014.
With the proactive enviroment minister Jairam Ramesh confirmed in his post, it shows that the government will press ahead with strong environmental regulation that have blocked major industrial projects over the last two years.
Industry voices concern
Re-elected in 2009, Singh’s government shielded India from the worst of a global downturn, and its economy is heading for growth of nearly 9% in the fiscal year ending in March. But reforms seen as key to making that growth sustainable to compete with China have been in limbo, while inflation and graft have overshadowed the boom.
A group of 14 public figures, from industrialists to former central bank governors, warned this week in an open letter that corruption and bad governance threatened India’s growth, a sign scandals were reaching a tipping point for civil society.
“We are alarmed at the widespread governance deficit almost in every sphere of national activity covering government, business and institutions,” said the letter, quoted in the Hindustan Times. The newspaper is published by HT Media Ltd. which also publishes Mint.
The vacancies were created by resignations of Shashi Tharoor as junior foreign minister and Andimuthu Raja as telecommunication minister from the Union cabinet. Raja, from the Congress’s regional DMK ally, quit over his link to a Rs 1.76 trillion 2G spectrum scam.