Debating India


A team for the game plan

Monday 13 February 2006, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

in New Delhi

The reshuffle in the Union Council of Ministers is indicative of the "desired policy direction" that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to impart to his government, one of submission to the U.S. worldview.

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President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the newly inducted Ministers after they were sworn in on January 29.

POLITICAL observers and the media had been speculating about a reshuffle in the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Ministry for nearly six months. On many occasions, there were also indications from the government that the exercise was about to be carried out, only to be repeatedly postponed. This gave the impression that the government leadership, particularly the Prime Minister, was affected by indecision. This had perplexed many, including some members of the Ministry, essentially on account of the perception that there were no political or administrative causes for such hesitation.

The ultimate execution of the Cabinet reshuffle on January 29, however, has revealed the reasons for the indecision. According to sources in the Congress leadership, the perceived diffidence on earlier occasions was actually a calibrated hold-up to get the desired policy direction to the Ministry. "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh carried out the reshuffle when he got the objective and subjective conditions in the party in favour of the policy direction that he wants," a senior Congress leader told Frontline.

The qualitative dimensions of the reshuffle leave no doubt as to what kind of policy direction Manmohan Singh wanted to impart to his Ministry. The single most important factor that seems to have influenced the Prime Minister in the exercise - which involved the inclusion of seven new Cabinet Ministers, the promotion of three Ministers of State to the Cabinet rank, and the induction of 12 new Ministers of State - is an urge to submit to the precepts of a unipolar world and follow economic and foreign policies largely dictated by the world vision of the United States.

Four days later, the Prime Minister himself clarified at a relatively long interaction with the media in New Delhi, that the foreign policy of his government was guided by "enlightened national interest" and that "we will not [buckle] and have not buckled under any kind of external pressure." Notwithstanding such assertions, the message from the reshuffle - one of submission to a unipolar worldview - cannot be ignored.

There are several indications to this in the reshuffle starting with the removal of Cabinet Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar from the Petroleum Ministry. Aiyar held the portfolios of Petroleum and Natural Gas and also Panchayati Raj and Youth Affairs before the reshuffle. He was widely appreciated for the independent initiatives he had taken in his capacity as the Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, which had, in essence, attempted to chart out a new energy policy for India with direct channels to countries such as Russia, China and Iran and regions such as Central Asia. These initiatives, which sought to "identify and implement steps in a comprehensive manner to improve energy security and address issues related to a strategic petroleum reserve along with an optimal sourcing policy for hydrocarbon security" were in keeping with the "policy thrust areas" accepted for the Ministry during the first anniversary celebrations of the UPA. (The text of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s speech made in Beijing on January 13 during his two-day visit to China is on page 90.)

The Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline was central to this independent initiative but it was clear that the Prime Minister did not see much merit in the project since he believed that international companies would not partake in such a "risky" venture for a variety of reasons, including the price factor and ethnic unrest in Baluchistan in Pakistan. Interestingly, it is on record that the U.S. also holds the view that the project has tremendous risk potential.

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Mani Shankar Aiyar (right), who was the Minister for Petroleum, with his successor in the Ministry Murli Deora. Aiyar has been transferred to the Sports and Youth Ministry.

Mani Shankar Aiyar was targeted by sections of the Congress leadership on the count that he had not been able to use the Ministry in such a manner as to provide material and organisational benefits to the party, but how can a Minister who was appreciated for his work in all the areas under his jurisdiction be downgraded on the basis of a charge like this. Especially, considering the fact that public opinion polls conducted by various media agencies over the past 12 months had repeatedly selected Aiyar as the best Minister in the Cabinet.

While the virtual demotion of Aiyar was the most perceptible indication of the "desired policy direction" that Manmohan Singh wanted to impart to his Ministry, there were other facets in the reshuffle that pointed in the same direction. As many as three new entrants to the Council of Ministers - Aiyar’s successor Murli Deora, Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma and Minister of State for Industries Ashwani Kumar - are known to be votaries of a pro-U.S. world vision.

Anand Sharma’s position in the Ministry of External Affairs as understudy to Manmohan Singh is of special importance as he shares the Prime Minister’s apprehensions about the Iran-Pakistan-India oil pipeline, supports the U.S. position vis-a-vis the Iran nuclear issue and is highly appreciative of the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement. According to a highly placed Congress source, Manmohan Singh will remain in charge of External Affairs until the Iran nuclear issue is settled and U.S. President George W. Bush completes his visit to India. Sharma, who abides by the Prime Minister’s line completely, will come in handy in such a context.

According to a senior non-Congress Minister, the clear message of the reshuffle is that "the jugalbandhi on issues of policy in the higher echelons of the Congress is over and that it is getting replaced by a solo "policy" voice from the party’s leadership." He explained that the reshuffle means that Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has accepted Manmohan Singh’s policy direction. He pointed out that as late as October 2005, the Left parties - on whose support the UPA government survives - were able to force a reconsideration of the disinvestment of the navratna public sector undertakings such as Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), but given the dimensions of the reshuffle this may not happen. "At that time," he added, "the perception even within the non-Congress parties of the UPA was that Sonia Gandhi was genuinely influenced by the concerns raised by the Left parties but in the new "objective and subjective conditions favourable" to the Manmohan Singh world view, the assumption is that the UPA chairperson has also changed tack".

By all indications, the UPA chairperson’s primary consideration while giving the go-ahead for the "policy direction"-oriented reshuffle was the loyalty of the incoming Ministers to her and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Factors such as performance evaluation did not seem to have bothered either the UPA chairperson or the Prime Minister. The fact that somebody like Shivraj Patil, whose record at the Home Ministry has consistently invited opprobrium, has retained his job is widely perceived as testimony to this.

The promotion of Congress Ministers Kapil Sibal and Santosh Mohan Deb, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Prem Kumar Gupta to Cabinet positions are, of course, considered to be merit-oriented decisions, as is the case with the induction of Ministers of State such as D. Purandeshwari, Pallam Raju and Ajay Maken. But all these have not diminished the overriding thrust of the "desired policy direction".

In the midst of all this, the induction of Vayalar Ravi, senior Congress and trade union leader from Kerala, as the Cabinet Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs is evidence of a tokenism of sorts to "old world" precepts like socialism. Talking to Frontline, Ravi maintained that his primary concern would be the plight of ordinary Indian workers abroad and not the economic concerns of non-resident Indian (NRI) business tycoons, who want to make India yet another destination for profit-making. Given the overall direction of the government, it remains to be seen how far his priorities will be accepted.

In terms of regional representation, Maharashtra got the largest share in the reshuffle with the appointment of three new Cabinet Ministers. This is perceived, even by sections of the Congress, as a realpolitik manoeuvre to chip away at the political and organisational roots of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a coalition partner in the Congress-led governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra. The inner-party debate relating to this also affirms the perception that the Congress is yet to accept and adopt functioning methods that are appropriate to coalition dharma.

According to a retired bureaucrat who has worked closely with earlier Congress regimes right from the period of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the overall policy direction reflecting in the reshuffle is strikingly bereft of appreciation for domestic political issues and realities. "A Cabinet led and suffused by members of the Rajya Sabha, controlled by politicians who have not really faced the challenge of standing before the people and relating to them, and a Prime Minister’s Office driven by career bureaucrats can easily take this path." "But," he added, "in the long run and even in the short- and medium-terms, such a line could be extremely counter-productive."

Notwithstanding such expressions of unease, the refrain in the PMO is that the reshuffle has heralded a "New Order", which will face the next general elections and lead the Congress with a new socio-political-economic agenda. The "New Order" would be strengthened after the Budget session of Parliament when some more Ministers would be dropped and new faces inducted.

See online : Frontline


Volume 23 - Issue 03, Jan. 28 - Feb. 10, 2006

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