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Is continuity over-riding change in Dr Singh's cabinet?

May 25, 2009 10:26 IST

Manmohan Singh is a lucky prime minister, for about a half of his old 29-member Cabinet has deserted him. It is not just that Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan walked out of the United Progressive Alliance, as did Anbumani Ramdoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, but also that some ministers whom he may have wanted to drop have conveniently lost their elections. That and his willingness to be rid of manifest non-performers like Arjun Singh explain why Dr Singh has been able to bring seven new faces into his Cabinet of 19 colleagues.

However, people like SM Krishna, Veerappa Moily and Mamata Banerjee are not 'new' faces in Indian politics. So the primary message from Friday evening's swearing-in was not change but continuity -- a fact confirmed by the half-dozen portfolios announced on Saturday. Pranab Mukheree at finance, P Chidambaram at home and A K Antony at defence are natural choices, and Mamata Banerjee has been at Rail Bhavan before (though her first comments suggest that she has not improved her economic literacy).

In addition, if Sharad Pawar stays in Krishi Bhavan though with agriculture (food seems to have been taken away, perhaps because it includes sugar), Kamal Nath in Udyog Bhavan, and Murli Deora in Shastri Bhavan (with petroleum and natural gas), the continuity principle will be seen as over-riding the change agenda. The natural question then would be whether that is enough to give the government a new wind. The answer is that, when half the old slate had been wiped clean, there should have been more evidence of substantive change.

On the showing so far, it is entirely plausible that Sushilkumar Shinde will be back with power, Jaipal Reddy with urban development, and Meira Kumar with social justice -- none of which would set the Yamuna on fire. The Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam may once again be allowed to treat communications as a fiefdom, though surface transport may be spared the tender mercies of T R Baalu's ministrations. Anand Sharma and BK Handique are likely to get relatively minor portfolios.

So if there is to be fresh thinking, it will be only at human resource development (Kapil Sibal?) and rural development (PC Joshi?). The face-off with the DMK and the dropping of some familiar faces do signal disfavour to non-performers and those suspected of malfeasance or misfeasance, but even these signals are mixed.

What must be hoped for now is that competent people with maturity and experience, like Salman Khursheed and Jairam Ramesh, will be given the opportunity to make a difference when more ministers are sworn in on Tuesday, and more young MPs blooded at the level of junior minister.

In terms of representational evenness, states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are missing altogether in the Cabinet. While nothing perhaps can be done about the smaller states like Jharkhand, Haryana and Chattisgarh, it does look odd that Andhra Pradesh (which has returned more Congress MPs than any other state) should have only Jaipal Reddy representing it in the Cabinet, while the only Muslim minister sworn in so far is from Jammu & Kashmir (Ghulam Nabi Azad). Getting representational evenness could appear to be tokenism, but since India is a diverse and complex country with people having a multiplicity of identities, it is important to reflect (even if only symbolically) this diversity in the Union Cabinet.

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