Ministerial musical chairs

Ministerial musical chairs

It is an old game in New Delhi to guess the “meaning" of every reshuffle in the Union council of ministers. The one effected on Tuesday did shuffle the pack a bit. But did it really effect a change that would dispel the notion that government is adrift? Not really.

Among a host of problems confronting the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA II) government, two merit close attention—for they have a bearing on what can be achieved with ministerial reshuffles and what can’t. For one, this government believes only in incremental change and not in bold steps— domestically or foreign policywise. Then, for all practical purposes gate keeping of policy ideas and agenda setting are not done within the government. That domain has shifted elsewhere.

Seen against this backdrop, it matters little who comes in or goes out of the council of ministers. The only thing that matters is adjustment at the margin, designed for that most base of reasons: survival instinct. Take Tuesday’s reshuffle. The first thing, for the sake of administrative efficiency, would have required the total booting out of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) from the railway ministry. Far from doing that, the Prime Minister has handed the ministry right back to the TMC. It is as if ministries have become the preserve of regional parties and no one else can touch them even if they are run aground.

Some ministers have been eased out, for reasons of “underperformance". That is hardly a good reason—for that description fits almost any ministry. From serious concerns such as attacks by pirates on Indian shipping to the most trivial issues (the threat of resignation by a senior law officer of the Union being a good example), the government is hardly able to take any decisions. How does a ministerial reshuffle make any difference?

Consider the areas where no changes have been made and India’s relations with the world come to one’s mind instantly. An assertive foreign policy—not necessarily a militant one—that matches India’s aspirations and abilities requires a younger foreign minister and certainly a more active one. There is no sign of that. To take a different cue, the home ministry is another example of what has been left untouched. The Union home minister is, by all accounts, a good performer. But such is the extent of torpor that some of his ideas get mired in political expediency. The fate of the national intelligence grid being a good example of this.

The problems of the UPA II government lie in an area beyond ministerial changes, whatever be the scale of the latter.

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