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Talk less, there’s a lot to do

- Why the changes go well beyond the cosmetic

New Delhi, Oct. 28: The last major shuffle of the UPA II cabinet before the 2014 general election may not have made any grand declarations nor ushered in sweeping changes of the breathless “breaking news” variety.

But in their own quiet and understated fashion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, in close consultation with one another, succeeded in executing several changes that go well beyond the cosmetic.

In what appears to be a carefully thought out exercise, the Manmohan-Sonia duo have laid particular focus on competence, preferred low-profile diligence to garrulous flamboyance, given a significant leg-up to the younger brigade (but in a calibrated rather than flashy manner) and kept an eye on political realities, particularly in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

The most significant change, on the face of it, is the replacement of S.M. Krishna with Salman Khurshid as external affairs minister. Together with the induction of P. Chidambaram as finance minister a few months ago, the Prime Minister has been able to have men of his choice in two of the “Big Four” portfolios (finance, external affairs, home and defence), men who are believed to be particularly suited to their portfolios.

The exit of Pranab Mukherjee from the finance ministry has been widely hailed already; the Prime Minister will be hoping for the same change in atmospherics in South Block, now that the fumbling, if well-meaning, Krishna has been shown the door at last, and Khurshid — more at home in world capitals than in the heat and dust of heartland politics — has made an entry.

Khurshid’s promotion is also a signal to Messrs Kejriwal & Co that their “naming and shaming” tactics are not going to deter the Congress leadership from holding on to its talent pool, and giving them responsibilities commensurate with their competence. Therefore, despite the allegations of corruption against an NGO run by Khurshid and his wife Louise, the Prime Minister thought it fit to give him a more high-profile portfolio than the ones he was holding.

The same reason seemed to have worked in favour of Shashi Tharoor. After being forced to quit the government after his then friend (and now wife) Sunanda Pushkar was caught in the “sweat equity” controversy involving IPL Kochi, he has been brought back — this time as minister of state in the human resource development ministry.

Khurshid apart, the other “big ticket” change today —and of greater significance because of being so unexpected — is the elevation of minister of state for defence Pallam Raju to the exalted status of HRD minister. A low-profile minister and a man of few but usually well-chosen words, Raju replaces the flamboyant Kapil Sibal who is now left with only his “additional” telecom portfolio.

Although Sibal was one of the government’s most visible and vocal members, his record as HRD head was often controversial, and the Prime Minister appears to have gambled on a “dark horse” — reputed to be quietly competent — in a ministry that is possibly more crucial than some of the “Big Four” at a time the hunger for education from the primary to the postgraduate level is peaking across the country. That Tharoor has been inducted into the HRD ministry as well is another indication of the increasing importance of this gargantuan portfolio.

The preference for relatively low-profile but competent ministers seems to have worked in favour of Pawan Kumar Bansal, who has been rewarded with the prestigious railways portfolio. C.P. Joshi, who was holding additional charge of railways after the exit of the Trinamul Congress from the government, was widely expected to get it for good, especially since he is rumoured to be close to Rahul Gandhi. That impression may have worked against him, and it is the affable Bansal — a parliamentarian of considerable experience — who has got the coveted ministry.

But Bansal did not make much of a mark as parliamentary affairs minister. Kamal Nath, who was hoping for a more important ministry than his current charge of urban development, will also look after parliamentary affairs — a portfolio that has acquired a great deal of importance in these politically fractious times and requires “across the political spectrum” contacts and skills to ensure the smooth functioning of Parliament.

Kamal Nath, among the senior-most Congress MPs, will be tested on that count when the turbulent winter session begins less than a month from now.

Jairam Ramesh retains the rural development portfolio that he has given such a high profile to, but the “drinking water and sanitation” department has been carved out and given to Bharatsinh Solanki as minister with independent charge. Since Jairam got that department only because Gurudas Kamat rejected it during the last reshuffle, it is possible that the Prime Minister was restoring status quo ante as it were. But the “garrulous and flamboyant” factor may also have worked against Jairam — after all, he focused an enormous amount of energy on “sanitation” and made several controversial comments of the toilets-versus-temples and lavatories-versus-mobiles variety — and he will now be divested of his pet department.

Beyond the headline changes, though, the big signal from this shuffle is the elevation of several young faces, albeit in a gradualist fashion, in so far as many have been given independent charge rather than a straight jump to cabinet rank.

Manish Tewari, although not a card-carrying member of the “babalog brigade”, is young enough and probably the biggest winner of this reshuffle. From a mere MP, he has become the MoS with independent charge of the I&B ministry. His predecessor (and senior by decades) Ambika Soni has opted out of government for party work, and Manish seems to have been chosen because he has established a good rapport with the media (especially TV news channels), having become one of the most tele-savvy spokesmen of the Grand Old Party in the last few years.

Ajay Maken, another relatively young politician from Delhi, has got full-fledged cabinet rank, as has Ashwani Kumar — though whether Kumar (who rather likes his own voice) is the right person to be law minister may figure among the FAQs of this reshuffle. The same goes for Chandresh Kumari Katoch, a Himachal royal elected from Rajasthan, who is the new entrant to the cabinet as culture minister and no one quite knows why she has been chosen.

Of the babalog, the big gainers are Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Jitendra Singh, all three of whom have now become ministers of state with independent charge of important portfolios — power, corporate affairs, and youth affairs and sports, respectively. In case a UPA III comes into being post-2014, these young men will have acquired enough experience to earn cabinet rank. If not, they can play key roles in Rahul’s team on the Opposition benches.

Other members of the youth brigade such as R.P.N. Singh, Jitin Prasada and D. Purandeswari have also got a leg-up in terms of importance of portfolios. Jitin Prasada will be MoS in the heavyweight ministry of HRD; R.P.N. gets home; and Purandeswari gets commerce and industry.

The induction of three ministers from Bengal, including fierce Mamata critics Deepa Das Munshi and Adhir Chowdhury, is signal enough that while Sonia and Manmohan have not reacted to Mamata Banerjee’s diatribes, they fully back the state Congress unit’s battle against Trinamul and will do what they can to bolster the Congress’s chances in the state. The decision to make Adhir Chowdhury MoS in railways — long regarded by Mamata as a Trinamul fief — carries its own piquant message.

With Andhra Pradesh slipping out of the Congress’s control thanks to the Jagan juggernaut, five new ministers is clearly a desperate attempt to hold on to the state that has given the party its biggest contingent of Lok Sabha MPs.

With less than 18 months to go for the next general election and given the hostile anti-government mood in the country, the new ministers do not have much time to settle down into their roles. They have to hit the ground running. And, given their bosses’ inclination, not make too much of a song and dance about it.