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Cabinet revamp: Focus on younger ministers, old ailments remain

Khurshid gets foreign ministry, Moily moves to petroleum; Scindia, Pilot get independent charge
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First Published: Sun, Oct 28 2012. 01 39 PM IST
The new ministers wait for President Pranab Mukherjee before their swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on Sunday. Photo: Raveendran/AFP
The new ministers wait for President Pranab Mukherjee before their swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on Sunday. Photo: Raveendran/AFP
Updated: Mon, Oct 29 2012. 12 22 PM IST
New Delhi: It was a cabinet reshuffle that was to happen six months ago. When the revamp did finally happen, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered on the promise of inducting fresh faces and empowering young leaders by providing them with independent ministerial charge in key portfolios such as power and corporate affairs.
At the same time, along expected lines, Singh moved out S. Jaipal Reddy from the petroleum ministry, replacing him with a veteran in Veerappa Moily—considered to be less prone to controversies; while Salman Khurshid, despite his recent brush with controversy, has actually been elevated as the new foreign minister. Ashwani Kumar was made the law and justice minister.
After the image makeover that saw the induction of 17 new ministers and the exit of seven, the council of ministers of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has increased to 79. The bet is that the fresh faces would bring new ideas and energy in government and, at the same time, given that they are starting afresh, would be less vulnerable to political attacks from an otherwise energized opposition.
But the big question is whether the government will be able to push through simultaneous efforts in other areas to complement the gains accruing from the cabinet reshuffle and regain the political momentum to tide over the next 18 months to the next scheduled general election.
The key concerns continue to be able to take, in a politically hostile climate, unpleasant decisions such as a fuel price hike to balance the budget, politically deal with the raft of corruption allegations, stamp down rampant inflation and generate sufficient jobs.
At the same time, it has to brace for an electoral challenge in key states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where the Congress is in a direct face-off with its principal political rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Analysts are sceptical and say it is a case of a missed opportunity.
“It is for narrow electoral politics rather than for a radical image makeover,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
Arguing similarly, Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor at Jain University and director of International Academy for Creative Teaching at Bangalore, said it was a “reshuffle of largely the same pack” and that the young members did not get due representation.
Singh, however, maintained that the new cabinet is a combination of “youth, experience and relevance to the portfolios that have been entrusted to the ministers”. Talking to the media after the swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Singh ruled out an early general election. “The road ahead is full of challenges. But this is a team, which I hope will be able to meet those challenges.”
Congress leaders too argued that the presence of more fresh faces and the elevation of young leaders is seen as the party’s attempt to initiate a generation change in the party.
The reshuffle, say insiders, has been strongly influenced by party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to take over as the working president of the Congress and thereby a larger political role. At least three senior party leaders said that Congress president Sonia Gandhi would soon restructure the party organization by inducting more young blood of Rahul Gandhi’s choice. All the leaders declined to be named.
Analysts disagreed.
“The reshuffle seems to be a product of political compulsion. It is hard to say if it will yield any image makeover for the government. A baby step towards that object would have been changes in the main ministries and removal of controversial ministers,” Mehta said, adding that it would give fillip to the ongoing anti-corruption movement in the country. “It is a political expansion rather than a radical image makeover.”
The limelight no doubt on Sunday was on the new profile that was consciously accorded to the so-called next generation. While Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot were inducted as ministers with independent charge of the portfolios of information and broadcasting, power and corporate affairs, respectively, Ajay Maken was elevated as cabinet minister in charge of housing and urban poverty alleviation.
Singh’s cabinet now includes at least five ministers who are 45 years old or younger, with Pilot, 35, being the youngest. The others are Jitin Prasada, Jitendra Singh, Scindia and Lalchand Kataria.
The reshuffle also saw the UPA formally move ahead without its troublesome former ally, Trinamool Congress. Not only were the TMC portfolios shared among Congressmen, the Prime Minister also inducted some of the bitter political rivals of Mamata Banerjee, such as Deepa Dasmunshi, into the cabinet.
The induction of five ministers from Andhra Pradesh and the elevation of M.M. Pallam Raju are significant as the party is struggling to find a solution to the deepening crisis
in the state due to the demand for giving the status of a separate state to the Telangana region.
The UPA government, which returned to power in 2009 with an impressive majority, has been mired in a series of corruption scandals involving its leaders. Although the government tried to rejuvenate the atmosphere with a slew of reform measures announced recently, fresh charges of irregularities and graft against its leaders and close relatives have further dented its image. The party and the government are also expected to face a tumultuous winter session of Parliament beginning 22 November to 20 december.
Both Mehta and Shastri also said the reshuffle was unlikely to kick-start a policy revival.
“What is more important is whether the UPA and its constituent parties have the political energy to take any new initiatives forward or take those which are already started to their logical conclusion,” Shastri said.
See the complete list of the revamped council of ministers here.

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      First Published: Sun, Oct 28 2012. 01 39 PM IST