Millennium Post

Three messages of the reshuffle

Three messages of the reshuffle
In countries that are democratic not in name but in practice, such as the US, rival candidates of the major political parties get a wonderful opportunity, which they utilise to the hilt, to explain what exactly they’d do, and what they’d not, after being elected to the White House. It helps. It is largely due to the televised debates that the earlier yawning gap between President Barack Obama, who’s seeking re-election, and Republican rival Mitt Romney, has narrowed down considerably, with the voters doubting if the former could deliver what the country needs most, jobs, and the latter appearing a lot less as a soulless tycoon as he appeared before. The debates still haven’t convinced the electors that Romney has the nitty-gritty of the economic recovery he promises. So it remains a tie, but an enlightened one.

In democracies that are somewhat nominal, like India, the ruling party has an opportunity to state its ideas of governance through cabinet reshuffle. Since the job of the opposition party in a dysfunctional democracy is to oppose, often by such display of athletic prowess as blocking parliamentary sessions and holding street protests, there is not much scope to know what all it would do if it comes to power. Be that as it may, the reshuffle of the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday was anything but a pointer to its proposed line of march till the Lok Sabha poll in 2014, except for three broad clues.

First, the curious case of Anand Sharma, Cabinet Minister for Commerce, Industry and Textiles. In an environment that prompts everyone in the political arena, from communists to BJP, and Mamata to Mulayam, to present FDI in multi-product retail sector as an existential threat, Sharma supported it passionately. He not only steered the decision in the cabinet knowing that the deck was stacked against him, but used a bout of track two diplomacy with several state governments to modernise marketing, particularly that of agricultural produces, by accepting FDI in retailing. By keeping Sharma in the Commerce Ministry, the Prime Minister signaled that India would not stray from the path of reform, as it did between 2009 and July 2012 at the instigation of overzealous populists. Organised retail flourishes by cutting out middlemen and such other rent-seekers, their share being grabbed by the producer at the farm (or factory) end and the retailer at the selling point. Sharma’s FDI-in-retail policy has the open or tacit support of the states not burdened by too many market intermediaries, like Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana.

The next message of the reshuffle lies in the quiet removal of former socialist S Jaipal Reddy from the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to the silent corner that houses the Ministry of Science and Technology. Reddy, a supporter of the late V P Singh in the 1980’s in his ‘crusade’ against the Reliance Group, seemed caught in a time warp during his stint in the P&NG Ministry as he turned the company’s oil and gas concessions in the Krishna-Godavari basin off the Andhra Pradesh coast into a veritable minefield of bureaucratic hostility. The Reddy-Ambani skirmishes resulted in a near-halt to gas production in KG Basin, impacting power generation, fertilizer production, domestic supplies and the transport sector. Reddy’s replacement, Veerappa Moily, is reputedly corporate-friendly.

But the ministerial appointment that may have a far-reaching outcome is that of Salman Khurshid as External Affairs Minister. Khurshid served in the same ministry as Minister of State in the 1990’s. But his current elevation to the Cabinet rank suggests that the Prime Minister has many foreign policy ideas in the closet and was looking for a trusted man who could translate them into action. Khurshid’s predecessor, S M Krishna, did not enjoy Singh’s confidence. It is well known that the Prime Minister is keen to open a new chapter in India’s relations with Pakistan, using vigorous bilateral negotiations to address all the major problems, and to sort out most of them. Like Krishna, Khurshid too has considerable educational accomplishments.

But, in dealing with Pakistan, Khurshid can bring his pedigree to the table; he is grandson of Zakir Hussain, an acclaimed academician respected in both India and Pakistan (the first translator of Mirza Ghalib, the Urdu poet) and the first Muslim President of India.
Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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