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Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

A reshuffle of limited utility

This was perhaps the last reshuffle to turn a new page for the government; it has gone unutilized

On Sunday, the much awaited “big" reshuffle in the Union council of ministers was effected. Seven new cabinet ministers were sworn in, as were 15 ministers of state, two with independent charge. Key portfolios, including external affairs, petroleum and natural gas and railways, among others were also changed.

Ultimately a reshuffle is a balance between administrative demands such as efficiency and the logic of furthering political interests of the leading party in the coalition. At the moment, India is passing through a difficult time. From macroeconomic management to managing natural resources (oil and gas, for example) to preventing exports from nose-diving requires concerted action across different ministries. Larger objectives, such as furthering India’s interests abroad—economic and strategic—needed a forceful voice. This was missing for a while. Politically, of course, this time has been a trying one: the government has virtually been lurching from crisis to crisis.  Tackling this was a tall order and viewed from the above perspective the reshuffle was likely to prove disappointing. It did.

On the one hand, the government needed a strong injection of administrative talent and on the other hand, politically, it required a certain kind of a balancing act. The latter objective has been taken care of; but in doing so the far more pressing task of ending the administrative drift at the Centre has been, by and large, ignored. At least three key ministerial positions raise questions of competence and the honesty of motives behind the changes. Some ministers of state have been promoted to cabinet rank while others have been inducted as ministers of state with independent charge. Perhaps this was something that should have been done a year ago for these ministers to deliver results.

On the whole, this government has a shortage of talent. One way to overcome the problem is to have a rapid turnover at the minister of state level and, in the process, retain useful members and discard old ones. That way, the political end of the problem—the question of surviving elections—too could have been fixed. Talented ministers delivering the goods, is the best way to ensure political survival. Instead, the government chose to rely on big schemes and populism to short-circuit this process.

The long time taken to promote ministers of state and weeding out the deadwood is due to this aspect of the United Progressive Alliance government’s rule.

Predictably, it has been expensive politically. This was perhaps the last reshuffle to turn a new page for the government. It has gone unutilized.

Do reshuffles serve any purpose in this age? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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