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Cabinet Reshuffle: The Rahul Gandhi Conundrum

The reshuffle has resulted in 17 new faces inducted and a third of senior cabinet ministers impacted. Still, the changes, ahead of assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, are a sprucing up of the existing structure with Manmohan Singh at the helm that will not reverse the dipping political fortunes of the Congress party, writes Siddharth Srivastava.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Mohd. Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, chairperson of National Advisory Council Sonia Gandhi and other dignitaries at the swearing-in ceremony of the Union Council of Ministers, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, Oct. 28. [Press Information Bureau]

The much-awaited cabinet reshuffle of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Center happened last month.

There has been a big juggling of portfolios by three important people who control matters in the incumbency — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the all-powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi.

New ministers have been appointed for important portfolios such as foreign affairs, oil, power, railways among others. Some party loyalists have been rewarded, young performers seen as close to Rahul promoted, while regional representation has been adhered in keeping with the national party stature of the Congress.

Vacancies due to exit of coalition partner Trinamool Congress from government also needed to be filled. Salman Khurshid, awarded for his unstinting vocal defense of Robert Vadra, Sonia’s son-in-law in the face of serious corruption charges by social activist Arvind Kejriwal, has been elevated as foreign minister. Oil minister Jaipal Reddy seen as opposing corporate interest has been shunted out.

“It is a combination of youth and experience. The road ahead is full of challenges,” Manmohan told reporters, adding that the ministerial expansion would probably be the last before general elections due in 2014.

Manmohan ruled out early elections, though the matter is not entirely in his hands if coalition and outside support to the government is withdrawn.

On the heavily speculated matter of Rahul joining the government as minister, Manmohan said that he wanted the Gandhi scion to join his administration, but “he (Rahul) wants to strengthen the party.”

The reshuffle has resulted in 17 new faces inducted and a third of senior cabinet ministers impacted. Still, the changes, ahead of assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, are a sprucing up of the existing structure with Manmohan Singh at the helm that will not reverse the dipping political fortunes of the Congress party.

With Rahul, despite emerging as the real power behind the throne, choosing to stay out of government, the big question, who after Manmohan, still remains a matter of debate. Top functionaries in both Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today face similar charges of corruption, crony capitalism, nepotism and favoritism.

It thus becomes important that the two national parties clearly spell out the leaders who will be the Prime Ministerial candidate for general elections to set out the agenda for the future. With nothing much to choose between the Congress and BJP, the contest will need to be between personalities and their national standing. Otherwise, there are strong possibilities of regional political outfits gaining prominence, with both the Congress and BJP relegated to the sidelines.

In the past the BJP has relied on the pan-national appeal of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to coalesce warring leaders, egos and ambitions. The BJP is reluctant to portray Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, whom many consider as the right man at the top to lead the party to victory. In the absence of consensus other pretenders and satraps fancy their chances.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Rahul and Sonia Gandhi paying floral tributes at the samadhi of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on her death anniversary, at Shakti Sthal, in Delhi, Oct. 31. [Press Information Bureau]

The case of Congress is a little less complicated. The party would be more than happy if Rahul chooses to be at the helm. Rahul traces his lineage to late Rajiv Gandhi, his father, Indira Gandhi, his grandmother and Jawaharlal Nehru, his great grandfather. All have been Prime Ministers of India.

Sonia, 66, has been grooming Rahul to take on the family political mantle even as her daughter Priyanka Gandhi, seen as the more charismatic of the siblings, has kept away from active politics to focus on raising her family.

So far, Rahul has been managing Congress party affairs, conducting electoral campaigns and has stayed away from any administrative post under Manmohan. This is seen as a conscious decision by Sonia to shield Rahul.

The late Rajiv Gandhi never recovered politically following allegations of corruption in the Bofors Guns deal. However, with Sonia battling illness and Manmohan government grappling with major corruption scandals, the Congress party faces an uphill task to retrieve its political space.

The clamor by Congress party functionaries that Rahul should don greater and direct responsibility has thus increased. Apart from Manmohan speaking about it, in the recent past Khurshid has said that Rahul’s political innings so far have been just “cameos” with everybody waiting for the Gandhi to assume a more complete role. Implicit is the message is that Rahul should be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Congress party after Manmohan who turned 80 last month.

Although Sonia has kept away from holding any official post to deflect opposition criticism about her Italian origins, Rahul is not shackled by such limitations. There is criticism that the Gandhi family exercises strong control over the government without being accountable for decision-making and public policy, especially the wrong ones. It has resulted in unnecessary intrigue and lack of transparency in higher government functioning.

The dual power structure is seen against the spirit of the Constitution and undermining the status of head of government. Over the recent weeks, the scam-prone Manmohan government has been desperately trying to turn around its diminishing legitimacy pushing through economic reforms.

The cabinet reshuffle last month was being widely speculated as Rahul’s stepping stone to direct authority.

The Congress prince, however, did not oblige.

Siddharth Srivastava is India correspondent for Siliconeer. He lives in New Delhi.


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EDITORIAL: “Four More Years”
POLITICS: Cabinet Reshuffle
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SOCIETY: Starbucks Comes to India
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FESTIVAL: Celebrating Diwali
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