Singh plays safe with reshuffle

Singh plays safe with reshuffle

New Delhi: It was meant to be the makeover that would, at least in part, refurbish the image of a government caught in a morass of scams and controversies.

Instead, Tuesday’s shuffle of ministerial portfolios by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was minimalist, except for a promotion for Jairam Ramesh, who takes over as minister for rural development, a portfolio close to the heart of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and at the core of the party’s political platform of inclusion and social development.

By Tuesday evening, the airwaves had been all but taken over by news that Gurudas Kamat, a Congress leader from Maharashtra, was quitting because he didn’t like the portfolio assigned to him: drinking water and sanitation.

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The changes won’t have the desired effect, said a political analyst. “It is totally insufficient compared to what is required. It looks like more supply-driven than demand-driven. The cabinet reshuffle gives the impression of a caretaker government, which is just run for routine affairs and which does not take bold initiatives," said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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A senior Congress minister, who did not want to be identified, disagreed and said both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had ensured the “removal of some of the underperforming ministers". Interestingly, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which has lost two portfolios due to the resignations of A. Raja and Dayanidhi Maran, wasn’t accommodated in the shuffle. Singh later told reporters that he has kept two positions open for the party.

The budget session was cut short to accommodate the elections to four states and the winter session was a non-starter due to a face-off between the government and the opposition.

The biggest change was the elevation of environment minister Ramesh, who had drawn the ire of companies for holding up multi-billion dollar investments in infrastructure because they were detrimental to the environment. His new ministry—rural development —has an annual budget of 74,000 crore that funds most of the government’s poverty alleviation programmes and is also piloting the crucial land acquisition Bill.

Ramesh, whose pro-environment stance was seen by analysts as something that had the support of Sonia Gandhi, has been replaced by Jayanthi Natarajan, who is believed to be close to Gandhi. “She will follow party policy rather than the government’s," said Arora.

The party’s hand was also visible in the choice of V. Kishore Chandra Deo as the minister for panchayati raj (local administration) and tribal affairs.

Analysts see Rahul Gandhi behind the induction of Jitendra Singh and Milind Deora, son of former corporate affairs minister Murli Deora who resigned last week. Milind Deora, 34, and Singh, 40, are among the younger ministers in the cabinet.

The “big four" ministries—finance, external affairs, home and defence—saw no changes.

The UPA government has been hard-pressed to deal with charges of corruption in the organization of the Commonwealth Games last year and the allocation of spectrum to telcos in 2008. It has also been criticized for its inability to fight inflation. The party’s reform-oriented laws, including one detailing changes in the land acquisition policy and another on taxes, have been stuck.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint