QUIETLY ASSERTIVE PM:A political safari


Victory and defeat in an election are a judgement call between options, not an epic choice between good and evil. It takes a couple of days at most for the celebrations to peter out and the tantrums to ease; then it is back to the difficult business of delivering governance against the background of raised expectations.

Manmohan Singh is showing every sign of being a sensible victor. Being sensible means taking decisions in silence, instead of churning out a statement a day to keep television channels in play. The wisest victor cherrypicks the best programmes in an opponent’s manifesto, takes note of any criticism that may have stung without being a fatal bite, and absorbs it without any fuss into the agenda of government.

 The smart thing to do is to make this so much a part of your commitment that the voter forgets the origin when it comes to making a choice yet again. The evidence for this assumption lies in the decision to give Kamal Nath, one of the stars of the last government, Surface Transport and Highways. It is possible to argue that Kamal Nath, now the oldest sitting member of the Lok Sabha (not in terms of age, but in number of elected terms) turned Commerce into a glamorous ministry by the force of his personality. By the measure of any political yardstick he has had every right to feel that he is both senior to and at least as competent as P Chidambaram, who has had the better portfolios. However, politics is less about justice and more about being in the right place at the right time.

The most suitable metaphor for power in Delhi comes, appropriately, from the safari park, with variations to extend the nomenclature beyond the cat family. At the top are the Big Five. The prime minister is the lion, though hopefully with the diligence of the lioness rather than the feed-me indolence of the male cat. The finance minister would be legitimately the tiger. Defence and external affairs would be elephants, controlling their patch with hauteur, but essentially vegetarian by nature. Elephants might trumpet and trample, but they don’t bite.
I suppose the human resources minister could lay claim to being the leopard. That gives the job status in the eyes of the jungle, but over the last decade the claws of this leopard have been manicured to non-existence. Both the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA allotted human resources to seniors in order to minimise the damage he could do to the Big Boss. Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh considered themselves worthy of the prime minister’s job, and were convinced that it was only a matter of time before summons arrived from destiny. It may sound a bit cruel, but the fact is that P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh converted the HRD office from a waiting room for promotion into the ante-room of oblivion. Joshi left office with a faintly malodorous air, and Arjun Singh left in tears. His relevance in the Congress party is more or less over. Kamal Nath’s name was bandied about as the HRD minister of this government because he was considered too senior to take a lesser job. But being a sharp man, wise in the ways of the Congress, he decided to avoid the trap of a first class waiting room with second class prospects.

The prime minister has sent a signal, picked up early and clearly by Kamal Nath, that the quality of infrastructure development in the next five years will be a vital key to public perception of the success or failure of this government. This was one area in which the BJP’s charge that the Vajpayee initiative had tapered off was received well by the voter. Dr Singh fought hard and successfully to keep the DMK out of infrastructure because he knew that this perception had some truth in it. These nodal ministries are much in demand because of the massive spending involved. Spending is a gilt-edged invitation to corruption. Road transport and highways is a responsibility that extends equally to every part of the country, urban and rural. It is the most visible measure of change.

The manner in which Praful Patel transformed civil aviation into a dynamic development office, rather than a status quoist job riddled with babu-level favouritism, is an indication of what a good minister can do with opportunity. A quiz question will perhaps clarify what I mean a bit more. What was the name of the last highways minister? The fact that you would probably have to be the last minister’s close relative to recall his name is evidence of the decline it suffered in the last five years. Trust me, you will not forget that Kamal Nath is in charge this time. Neither will the contractors.

Every government will have its share of file-shufflers. That is a demand of the Cabinet system we operate, in which political considerations have to take some precedence over competence. If Vilasrao Deshmukh was a disaster as Maharashtra chief minister, there is no earthly reason to expect that he will be a paragon of Harvard Business School now that he has been put in charge of heavy industries. He is being, as they say, “accommodated.”

Limit intervention

I presume the prime minister believes that all the heavy industrialists in the state sector have competent managers and the best thing that the minister could do is limit his intervention in their lives. The case of chemicals and fertilisers must be similar. The only really in-demand ministry that he has given the DMK is communications, and he has put two Congress ministers of state as guardian angels — to guard the Congress interests. There is no confusion this time about the pecking order at the top. Pranab Mukherjee is the clear second-in-command, while A K Antony comes next. The highest table has no fourth place. There is a high table after that, shared by the external affairs minister, the home minister, the law minister and the road transport Minister. The rest contribute to the attractions of the political safari, but they don’t sell tickets.

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