New Delhi, Oct. 28: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has overhauled his pilloried government, accomplishing probably his last such assignment through an understated set of combinations.
The shuffle sought to strike a balance between merit and youth, political logic and administrative acumen and regional compulsions and opportunities.
The Prime Minister expressed the hope that today’s revamp — involving as many as 42 changes in the council of ministers — would be the last before the next general election which he predicted would be held on schedule in 2014.
On Bengal, the high command sent out a deafening message to Mamata Banerjee by drafting her bitter critics Deepa Das Munshi and Adhir Chowdhury into the ministry. Although only Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury and Deepa were included in the original list, Adhir was accommodated at the last minute following a request from a veteran Congress leader from the state.
The Union ministry revamp has the “imprints” — a word that seems to have tickled Rahul Gandhi no end — of both Manmohan and Rahul who is soon expected to work as the functional head of the Congress despite Sonia Gandhi’s presence at the helm. It also placed young leaders at strategic locations to prepare them for the years beyond 2014.
If Salman Khurshid was promoted to the coveted external affairs ministry because of his abilities, experience and persona, this decision also addressed a lacuna in the top decision-making body of the government, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which did not have any member from the Hindi heartland.
One of the biggest changes has unfolded in education. M.M. Pallam Raju has replaced Kapil Sibal as human resource development minister — which is being seen as undeniable proof of Rahul’s imprint.
Although the Prime Minister is said to have had a soft corner for Sibal, who many think did not live up to his promise in HRD, Raju, 50, bagged the key cabinet slot apparently because Rahul backed him.
The selection of Raju, a US-educated engineer with an MBA, was widely hailed as he is known for his cool head and vision. His stint as the head of the Congress’s research division stood him in good stead.
The choice of Raju’s deputy also drew much attention, though Shashi Tharoor needs no introduction. If the Prime Minister can channel Tharoor’s irrepressible energy effectively, the Congress may gain a much-wanted effective speaker at times of fresh crises.
If the promotion of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot (both have independent charge) signifies a generation shift in the ministry, it also empowers two future leaders of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which go to the polls next year.
Rahul, who was chatting with the young ministers at Rashtrapati Bhavan, could not help but quip: “I am talking with my ‘imprints’.”
The rise of Rahul brigade may not have come with a big bang — none of the ministers has been given the cabinet rank — but their undeniable emergence is manifested in the choice of ministries.
Scindia has been given independent charge of power, a ministry whose performance is vital for industry and the economy, Pilot will look after corporate affairs in the season of allegations of fraud.
The decision that convinced Congress veterans of the advent of a new era is the choice of Manish Tewari for information and broadcasting at a time the entire party regrets the government’s failure at perception management.
Rahul aide Jitendra Singh, too, has been given independent charge of youth affairs and sports while Ajay Maken has been made cabinet minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation. Maken, who had waded into sports-related controversies, has been promoted but has lost the portfolio.
Pilot is barely 35 years of age, while Jitendra Singh and Scindia are 41 and Maken is 48. Raju, now a full cabinet minister, is only 50.
A Congress leader expressed “great relief” at Rahul not “mindlessly pushing for a generational change”.
Rahul has, however, managed to place his loyalists in almost every key ministry. While R.P.N. Singh has been brought to home as minister of state, Jitin Prasada has been stationed in HRD.
The Prime Minister, too, has ensured that the people who enjoy his trust and carry a clean image have been given important positions. While Ashwani Kumar as law minister is purely his choice, even the sincere and hardworking Pawan Bansal getting the vital railway ministry was his idea.
The politics of the shuffle attracted positive responses in the Congress, though there was some degree of heartache. The conscious decision to not disturb any minister from Uttar Pradesh despite the electoral debacle was aimed at sustaining the revival plan in the state; while Beni Prasad Verma was shaky because of his utterances, Sri Prakash Jaiswal was jittery after the coal scandal. Both survived.
The unmistakable push for Andhra Pradesh, which now has 11 ministers if Jairam Ramesh who is a Rajya Sabha member from there is included, shows the depth of concern in the high command over the pathetic state of affairs after Jagan Mohan Reddy’s rebellion. Chiranjeevi, who merged his party with the Congress, was rewarded with tourism ministry along with four others from the Congress.
Some decisions reflected the party’s compulsions. Kamal Nath, who was demoted in the previous shuffle, has now been roped in for managing parliamentary affairs while Jaipal Reddy was removed, apparently under pressure from the petroleum lobby. Harish Rawat, who was threatening to quit the Congress after he was denied the chief minister’s post in Uttarakhand, had to be promoted to the cabinet.
From poll-bound Gujarat, Dinsha Patel, who contested against Narendra Modi in 2007, was promoted to cabinet. Bharatsinh Solanki was given independent charge of drinking water and sanitation.
Resentment is strong in Maharashtra. The state has been passed over and the politically important regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada are not represented. State leaders from Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha have reason to feel aggrieved.
Congress leaders, including those ignored in the shuffle, are now anxiously awaiting the reconstitution of the AICC secretariat, which will complete the transition process from the Sonia era to that of Rahul.
Asked about the timing and nature of the changes in the party, Rahul said: “Have patience.”