It really doesnt make much of a difference who heads which economic ministry if the Prime Minister (PM) does not have the energy to push for economic reform in a cabinet form of government where policymaking has shifted from individual ministries to the so-called Group of Ministers. Hence, one should not put too much spin on the implications of portfolio re-allocation for economic reforms. That said, the decision of the PM to give charge of key economic ministries to ministers of proven talent and integrity like Arun Shourie and Arun Jaitley should be welcomed. The oil divestment imbroglio has shown, however, that there is very little an individual minister can do if he does not get the backing of the PM. Hence, while retaining Dr Shourie in disinvestment was a good idea, how effectively he can pursue this particular programme will depend on how much the PM wants to rein in the minister for petroleum and natural gas. Similarly, while Dr Shourie will not be partisan in the telecom sector, unlike his predecessor, how effectively the regulator is able to function in that sector will depend on how much autonomy the PM is willing to give regulators in regulating policy. Hence, the proof of the pudding as far as the impact of the reshuffle on reforms are concerned will be in the PMs eating!
On balance, however, the current round of ministerial musical chairs leaves the Union council of ministers better off. Getting Sushma Swaraj into health, in place of Shatrughan Sinha, will be welcomed by all those who view health as an important ministry and the health sector as one crying for more reforms. However, in terms of the reform impact of the reshuffle, the PM would have deserved more kudos if he had divested Ram Naik of the petroleum ministry, Shahnawaz Hussain of civil aviation, Ananth Kumar of urban development and Murli Manohar Joshi of human resources development. A review of their performance in these ministries, from an economic reforms point of view, would have shown them all to be wanting. Telecom, IT, disinvestment, industry and commerce are no longer the most important ministries where more reform has to be pursued urgently. In sectors like heavy industries, banking, education, urban and rural development, power, civil aviation, labour and so on there remains an unaddressed reform agenda that the PM must focus on. Without such prime ministerial leadership, we are unlikely to see too much purposive action from a set of patronage-dispensing politicians who are quite happy with their satrapies and subedaris.