Column : No excuses now, Prime Minister

May 30 2009, 23:10 IST
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SummaryWhen the Congress emerged with 206 seats in the Lok Sabha, an impression went around that they had secured two-thirds majority and could do whatever they liked. In the formation of the cabinet, that impression has been comprehensively shattered.

When the Congress emerged with 206 seats in the Lok Sabha, an impression went around that they had secured two-thirds majority and could do whatever they liked. In the formation of the cabinet, that impression has been comprehensively shattered. The Congress has been forced to realise that despite its numbers, it will not be allowed to have its say in every matter. The delay in forming the council of ministers was the first sign that the party will not be allowed to ride roughshod over its allies’ feelings.

The first thing that strikes the eye is that while the Congress may not have been forced to compromise on the Council as far as numbers are concerned, it has had to give way in terms of allocation of portfolios. They may have been able to keep TR Baalu out, but they have been forces to accommodate A Raja who has been given the same ministry in which he created mayhem last time.

Second, note the size of this council of ministers. This government needs to send a strong signal that it means business on the expenditure front, but the large size of the Council sends an entirely opposite signal.  This will create problems for the government in the future.

Third, note that there are seven ministers of state with independent charge who have got back the portfolios they had had earlier. So, if continuity is considered a virtue, why change the portfolio of a person like Kamal Nath? He has been shifted out of the commerce ministry to road transport and highways. But WTO negotiations call for both expert knowledge as well as personal contacts. On the other hands, Subodh Kant Sahay, the lone winner from Jharkhand, got the same portfolio—namely, food processing industries—with which he had been associated. MS Gill similarly retains youth affairs and sports. So, no value has been added in these cases. The whole exercise appears pointless.

Fourth, some people have been given additional charge. For instance, Sriprakash Jaiswal has been given additional charge of coal, in addition to statistics and programme implementation. CP Joshi has been given rural development as well as Panchayati Raj. These additional charges do not really gel together. Salman Khursheed has been given additional charge of minority affairs in addition to corporate affairs, but what the two have in common except the word affair?

Fifth, we had been told that each minister would be given only one ministry. The Prime Minister has been unable to enforce this. Take the case of Sharad Pawar, who retains agriculture along with food & civil supplies and consumer affairs & public distribution. Or that of A Raja, who has both communications and IT.

The sixth thing that strikes the eye is that the ministers of state have not been properly allocated. Finance could have done with one more. Defence should have had at least two of them and even home affairs could have done with one more. On the other hand, rural development and panchayati raj have three ministers of state. Information and broadcasting has two. And there are others too that can claim the comfort of plenty.

I would say that given the time that the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi took to form the council of ministers and given the flexibility they enjoyed, they could probably have done a better job. The present exercise looks too much like a patchwork, and has not given the new government a flying start.

Let’s also bear in mind that the responsibilities of a minister of state are determined entirely by the cabinet minister concerned. If the latter wants, he can give the junior minister a lot of work to do. If not, the junior is no more than a parliamentary secretary to the cabinet minister. So, much will depend on, say, A Raja’s mindset, not on what his juniors Gurudas Kamat and Sachin Pilot feel like. They can be rendered completely powerless by the cabinet minister if he so chooses.

Now, on the infrastructure front, Mamata has railways; Kamal Nath has road transport & highways. She is perhaps happy, and has held this portfolio earlier too. But I am sure that Kamal Nath is feeling that he has been given a far less glamorous job this time around. Virbhadra Singh has steel, Sushil Kumar Shinde has power and A Raja has telecom. All these people have a past history that is not very inspiring. And, therefore, one wonders what they will be able to deliver. This remains a question mark in my mind.

On the social sector front, concerned ministries range across human resource development and health, urban poverty alleviation and rural development. Consumer affairs and public distribution will have a direct bearing on procurement and forward markets, which have a direct bearing on aam aadmi. And so on. But, unfortunately one fails to see a pattern in the allocation of these portfolios. Again, this puts a question mark on how much the concerned ministers will be able to accomplish in these important areas.

Much will depend on the drive and energy the prime minister is able to impart into these areas from his level. This again is a matter of the future, but one knows from experience that he was not the best manager of men (and women) in the last UPA government. All in all, I will say that without the baggage of the Left or liabilities like Lalu and Paswan, people have a right to expect much more of the UPA this time around.

The author, winner from the Hazaribagh Lok Sabha seat, was also foreign minister under NDA

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