The PM’s authority was always under question, but even Sonia is now facing open defiance
Two ministers boycotted the swearing-in, a third one blamed “vested interests” for the loss of his portfolio, and yet another called the Cabinet reshuffle “a game of kho-kho”. All this was unheard of in the past. If anything, the latest reshuffle is a reminder of the days of the United Front Government when prime ministers like HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral struggled to make their voices count in their cacophonous cabinets. That may not yet be the case of the Manmohan Singh Government. Yet, the reshuffle has left little doubt that Dr Singh’s government is in worse shape than anyone expected halfway through its second five-year term.
Open potshots taken by members of the Union Council of Ministers over the reshuffle carried out by the Prime Minister, who had earlier held a series of meetings on the matter with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, mark a severe weakening of the authority of the central command, whether it is the Government or ruling party. That the Prime Minister’s authority in the ruling coalition was not being taken seriously had started becoming clear even before a set of Congress ministers griped publicly over the reshuffle.
Merely two days before the event, Minister of State for Railways Mukul Roy defied the PM’s directive to visit the site of a train accident in Assam and instead chose to accompany his party chief Mamata Banerjee to the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal. Later, when asked why he did not go to Assam, Roy retorted with sarcasm, saying: “I am not the Railway Minister. The PM is.” And yet, Manmohan Singh could not drop him from his Council of Ministers; he was merely shifted from Railways to Shipping as a minister of state.
What Mukul Roy could not do, the reshuffle has done. It has established that his brazen snubbing of the PM was not an exception, done by an extraordinarily touchy ally. That the central authority is weakening is now clear from the behaviour of Congress ministers too. Minister of State Gurudas Kamat, who was shifted from Home Affairs to the newly carved-out Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, and Minister of State Srikant Jena, who was miffed at not getting a Cabinet berth while his contemporary Beni Prasad Verma made it to the Cabinet, boycotted the swearing-in ceremony. Kamat even wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh seeking to quit the Union Council of Ministers altogether.
Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was shifted out of the Ministry of Rural Development and given charge of the Earth Sciences and Science and Technology Ministry, opted not to express his anger; he merely turned sardonic, taking the liberty to make his kho-kho comparison.
Dismay over the reshuffle was also expressed by Veerappa Moily on being shifted out of the Law Ministry to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, but what he said indicated a deeper malaise in the UPA-II. “There has been a campaign by vested interests. They knew reform was not pleasant to everybody, which I can’t help. I have to do this in the best interests of the country… For the sins of administrative ministries, the Law Ministry cannot be hanged,” he said after the reshuffle. That such “vested interests” are not a figment of a peeved imagination has been borne out by the taped conversations of Niira Radia. The erosion of the Centre’s command, therefore, is not something that ministers alone are to blame for; “vested interests” are playing a big role too, as Moily seems to more than suggest.
What is startling about recent events is that even the clear message that the reshuffle had Sonia Gandhi’s express approval has not contained this show of dissent. Already, in Andhra Pradesh, YSR’s son Jagan has successfully defied the party High Command, and now the Congress’ Telangana MLAs and MPs have raised a banner of revolt. It suddenly seems that it is not just the authority of Manmohan Singh, but even that of Sonia Gandhi that is coming under question.
While Sonia continues to maintain silence, the Prime Minister has tried to make light of the dissent. “Some unhappiness is bound to be there,” he said. He has also tried to signal a measure of strength and authority by saying that there would not be any more reshuffles before the next general election, due in 2014. Yet, he could not shake off the impression that the UPA has become an utterly unruly house on which he does not have the kind of control he exercised during his first tenure as India’s Prime Minister. By not touching the big four—the ministries of home, finance, defence and external affairs—which many expected he would, Manmohan Singh has also made it clear that his latest Cabinet reshuffle is not going to yield any ‘big idea’ that could plausibly save his government from the policy paralysis that has set in.