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ELECTION ALERT

A cabinet reshuffle can never take place in a fit of absent-mindedness. It is always a product of deliberate intent and design. The latest shuffling of ministerial portfolios and individuals by the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has a very clearly discernible aim. Mr Vajpayee, in the arcane jargon of the British political system, is planning to go to the country before the full term of his government is over. The exact timing of the next general elections will, of course, be subject to astute political calculations. The reshuffle suggests that it will be sooner rather than later. It is important to paint the bigger picture to comprehend the aim of the changes that have been made. The Bharatiya Janata Party, after its victory in Gujarat, is more buoyant than it has been in the recent past. In contrast, its principal rival, the Congress, is demoralized and in disarray. It has virtually no presence in many parliamentary constituencies. The global political environment — with its strong anti-Islam colouration and with the prospect of the United States of America going to war with Iraq looming large — gives the BJP the opportunity of cashing in on the consequent anti-Islam sentiments in India among large sections of Hindus. The external environment is thus favourable for seeking a renewed vote of confidence from the electorate. The cabinet reshuffle is the internal complement to the comfortable external circumstances. Ministers who have not performed or could be potentially embarrassing in the run-up to the polls have been removed or sidelined. The individual who has gained from the changes is Mr Arun Jaitley, who was an efficient minister; he also won his organizational spurs during the Gujarat elections.

Some conclusions follow almost inevitably from the constitution of what is best termed an election cabinet. The government will refrain from any decisions that can prove to be controversial and unpopular. In concrete terms, this will be the end of economic reforms despite the fortuitous presence of Mr Arun Shourie in the disinvestment ministry. A long period of weak, if not non-, governance can be apprehended. The budget, as can be well imagined, will be an exercise to please everybody and thus will be without any economic rationale. The BJP will try not to stir society with strong Hindutva since that will be controversial and its consequences unpredictable. But Hindutva is also the BJP’s unique selling point. There will be strong pressure on it to maximize the advantages of this agenda. Mr Vajpayee will have to walk the tight-rope between controversy and garnering votes.

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