PM's sense of humour

Cabinet reshuffle

Our saintly prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh has an understated but scathing sense of humour.

He is also an excellent shot, particularly when it comes to lowering the trajectory of high-flying birds. Both of these qualities were in evidence when he reshuffled his ministry for the last time.

Hidden in the melee of grand verbiage was a joke of careful proportions: the high-decibel Jairam Ramesh lost charge of sanitation after having invested so wantonly in this headline-heavy subject. When a politician travels the country saying that latrines are more important than temples, he is more interested in page one than facilities for the underprivileged. Those who want to build more latrines in villages go out and build; they don’t get witty.

Did Dr Singh learn the British art of shooting birds while picking up a doctorate at Cambridge? He showed he was pretty adept at bringing down those who had begun to fly beyond their political orbit or intellectual zone. His aim is not lethal, since he was dealing with colleagues rather than adversaries. But it takes finesse to inflict a precise wound. Only a blunderbuss would spread mayhem. Dr Singh aimed at one wing, not both.
Jairam Ramesh was telling friends for weeks that promotion was merely a shuffle away. Anand Sharma presumed that nothing less than external affairs was now worthy of his talents.

Kapil Sibal felt that after human resources the only space left on the upward mobility ladder was the intermediate area between his present job and the highest office in the cabinet. Instead, Sibal was cut to telecommunications size. Sharma is lost in the angst of status quo; and Ramesh has been punctured into silence, doubtless temporarily.
There is a message in those who were rewarded with railways and HRD, Pawan Bansal and Pallam Raju.

They are sedate; they believe that the job can be done without an orchestra in tow; and they flew below the radar. When Manmohan Singh puts on a judge’s robes, the toughest sentence is handed out to those who give too many press conferences. Of course, Singh cannot apply this rule all the time, since he is not the only one making these decisions. But you can recognise those decisions that he has made.

There are two sides to any such exercise: administrative and political, hopefully carefully stitched. Curiously for a party that considers itself even better at political management than governance, the politics of this shuffle are a disaster.

Dark hole for the party

Congress seems to have given up on four river belts: Ganga, Jamuna, Brahmaputra and Narmada. Make that three and a half, because Gujarat does get some attention. There is no cabinet representation from Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Assam; the east has become a dark hole for the party.

Congress could have tried for a new and fresh look in UP, but all it did was reward failure by renewal. The cabinet ministers who led the self-destructive Assembly campaign earlier this year have been retained, including those accused of corruption. Beni Prasad Verma, who brings nothing by way of votes but can be trusted to entertain India with some preposterous remark at least once a month, continues.

Salman Khurshid, who promised Muslims 17 per cent reservations during the campaign and got amnesia after defeat, has been promoted in portfolio terms. Sriprakash Jaiswal hogged the limelight during the Coalgate exposé but survives. Madhya Pradesh is absent. Digvijay Singh complained publicly, but it was probably a pro forma mea culpa to all those beating hearts who thought they had a chance. Bengal got second rank ministers; and was denied something it had got used to, the benefits of railways largesse.

Karnataka, a state in play since the next Assembly elections could go any which way, lost S M Krishna and got nothing as compensation. The tired excuse offered was that Krishna is needed for the Assembly polls, but ageing Krishna could not disguise his anger. He had been as loyal as any PM could have wished, and — as his beaming visage during the Pakistan visit indicated — had begun to enjoy his job when it was taken away. A crucial state like Maharashtra got nothing; Shivraj Patil would have filled some of the gap. But he has been left to waste in the Punjab Raj Bhavan.

This was an Andhra-centric reshuffle. There may be a psychological explanation for this, for the centrepiece of two Congress general election victories has been a superb performance in Andhra Pradesh. But in political terms, this was throwing precious good money from a dwindling bank account after bad. The Congress can make every MP from Andhra a minister and it still will not win.

Measure Congress weakness through this yardstick: the prime minister cannot deliver Punjab; P Chidambaram cannot win Tamil Nadu; A K Antony does not make much difference in Kerala anymore; only Sushil Shinde of the big five carries some electoral clout. The rest is downhill from a low slope.

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