Cabinet reshuffle: From 'K-Plan' to '2-K Plan
N Sathiya Moorthy
29 October 2012
If there is one thing that the weekend reshuffle of Ministers and portfolios may have done for the image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Government, it is to put the recent past behind in terms of political charges of corruption and non-performance. With that also ends all excuses that may be available to a Prime Minister in his place, to deflect criticism, if any, in the coming weeks and months, as the nation and his ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), prepares to face the tough parliamentary polls ahead.
Despite media predictions and electoral hopes of the BJP-NDA, the Congress-UPA victories in the parliamentary polls of 2004 and 2009 were not exactly shocking or unpredictable. Those who did not want to see the writing on the wall did not see it. Those who read it, did not want to speak it lest they should be proved wrong at the end and ridiculed for their wrong predictions. Of the two elections, the first one was 'Sonia Gandhi's election and victory', and the latter that of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. Today, there is even more of Manmohan Singh in electoral terms for the Congress to prove to the country, its existing allies to begin with.
The way the parliamentary poll is shaping at the moment, the voter comes the next - and by extension, individual candidates. Political party identities come somewhere in between, the role expected to be defined and refined in the long run-up between now and whenever elections become due. This owes to the increasing perceptions of the weakening of the 'big two' in national politics - namely, the Congress and the BJP - and the consequent calculations that revive possibilities of a return to the mid-Nineties, when a coalition of regional parties called the shots in national politics. Not that the voter could be faulted for his choice, made with the full knowledge of the kind of results his choice would provide at the Centre, but situations such as this make the confer on the candidates a shared burden to win the elections against better-known party-brands, which seem to be less trusted.
It is in this context that the current reshuffle needs to be viewed. In a way, it is a 'Kamaraj Plan' of its time, when the 'voluntary resignation' of S M Krishna as the External Affairs Minister heralded the news that the much-delayed ministerial changes were imminent. His replacement by Salman Khurshid at a time when the latter was in the dock on corruption issues flagged by 'Team Kejriwal', should send out a strong message that the Congress Party and Government leaderships are tired of reacting to charges of the kind, which had become numerous with each passing day over the past years.
Considering that the neighbourhood was watching the earlier 'Team Anna' campaigns with interest and the rest of the world with concern, Khurshid by his very elevation as External Affairs Minister dealing with foreign Governments and dignitaries, should put at rest all doubts about the stability and the focus of the Manmohan Singh leadership, at least for some more time to come. It is another matter that Krishna's resignation came a day after the Lok Ayukta in native Karnataka had ordered police investigations into charges against him in a land scam during his days as Chief Minister.
That the very same scam also involved former Janata Dal (Secular) Chief Minister and later-day Prime Minister H D Deva Gowda, and another ex-Chief Minister in BJP's Yediyurappa should not make easy reading for either the Congress politically, or Krishna personally. Yet, in a State that is due for Assembly elections next year, the possible netting of three senior leaders of three different political parties In the same scam should be a reflection of the prevailing public mood, as reflected by 'Team Anna' first, and 'Team Kejriwal', later, though both have added different moral and legal weightage to the national discourse on corruption, over the past couple of years.
In a way, the 'Karnataka model' of corruption, if it could be called so (until the investigations become conclusive and charges are framed), coupled with its larger-than-life reflection at the national-level should make the nation into stop at the pit and take notice of what lies ahead in political and electoral terms. What is true of political adversaries in Karnataka is being sought to be proved true about the national players - namely, the Congress and the BJP on the one hand, and their allies and leaders at different levels. This habit or process, if left unchecked, can have a debilitating effect, not just on individual political parties, but the nation and national institutions as a whole.
Either by accident or design, almost every other political party and leader across the country, barring a few, have escaped the odium of corruption charges or despotic behaviour - or, both. What is at stake is the credibility of the nation, which in turn is increasingly acquiring the characteristics of an emerging challenge to nationhood and State structures. Anti-corruption brigades and other civil society organisations flagging various issues, in the name of highlighting one or the other of their mandate concerns, have begun targetting State structures (of which the political scheme is an important, if not impartial element) in ways that end up threatening the very foundations.
In this background, the Prime Minister may have to send out a political signal by inducting Khurshid into the charming circle of senior Cabinet colleagues, that too in the most visible of all Ministries. In the early hours of the reshuffle, starting even with the exit of S M Krishna, the media that was expected to gun for him over the Lok Ayuta orders, seems beginning to look at the possibilities of performance and non-performance of the new inductees to assess the image of the twin leadership of the party and the Government.
In this, the appointment of more Ministers of State with Independent charge may have served multiple purposes. One, like a sports team playing the national leagues ahead of picking up a team for internationals, the Congress may have begun the process of identifying young leaders for future governments. Identified with the youthful image of Rahul Gandhi, they fit in with the explanation Krishna offered on resignation - that there was need to induct the youth. Yet, the secret of the success of their induction and delegation lies even more in the fact that many of them will be heading infrastructure ministries (re-defined to include the 'knowledge sector', too), either as 'Independent charge' or otherwise, and thus reporting to the Prime Minister directly.
Media criticism, motivated or otherwise, that some of the senior Ministers stood in the way of taking 'reforms-based development' forward, cannot hold good any more. The responsibility for better administration - and by extension 21st century elections - rest with the Prime Minister. He has taken the initiative. Others need to take the cue. Otherwise, quotas - higher or lower - for individual States do not seem to count any more in electoral terms, and the voter is not fooled by such calculations any more, if at all he had been fooled earlier. He expects delivery, not from individual Ministers, but from the Government as a whole.
To the extent, Prime Minister Singh has 'controlling stakes' in the running of infrastructure ministries, which matter the most in the post-reforms India, the current reshuffle may have strengthened the hands of the PMO, as the original K-Plan sought to strengthen the hands of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in the aftermath of the 'Chinese aggression', which challenged his leadership and public image in ways that have not been fully understood. Then came the era of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, and later that of Atal Behari Vajpayee, from the rival BJP. Under all these Prime Ministers, the Prime Minister's Office strengthened its hold over policy-making, as the priorities were earmarked at the time. Today, it is a different India, a different policy-priority and a different Prime Minister.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)