Team Manmohan has a settled look, despite faltering start (Comment)

May 29th, 2009 - 1:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Amulya Ganguli
If the Manmohan Singh government appears to have made a faltering start, the blame falls on the unavoidable exigencies of coalition politics. However, of all its partners, it is the regional ally from Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which must be held responsible for creating most of the problems.

Its antics started with its ailing leader, M. Karunanidhi, leaving Delhi in a huff and returning to Chennai with his band of relatives and party members because he was unhappy with the ministerial berths being offered to the party.

Although the differences were subsequently sorted out, it left a bad taste in the mouth. What is more, it is the DMK whose reputation suffered the most because Karunanidhi’s demands showed that the party has been reduced to virtually a family concern.

In the end, however, only one of the ageing patriarch’s sons, M.K. Azhagiri, was sworn in along with his grand-nephew, Dayanidhi Maran, but the fact that his daughter, Kanimozhi, opted out suggested that there was a row within the family before the final decision was taken.

That the family drama hasn’t ended was also evident from Kanimozhi’s absence during Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony.

While the DMK evidently did not come out of the episode smelling of roses, neither did the Manmohan Singh government. The latter’s acquiescence in the appointment of the former telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja, who did not really excel with his performance and made some dubious decisions, in the same position disappointed those who had presumed that the prime minister would make a new beginning free of the scandals of the past.

The only consolation was that another controversial former minister, T.R. Baalu, belonging to the DMK, did not find a place in the ministry. But the fact that his name was mentioned as a possible deputy speaker underlined the unwarranted influence which the DMK wields over the Congress at the national level.

It is noteworthy that Baalu’s earlier portfolio has gone to the Congress’ Kamal Nath, who is known for his efficiency. He is expected, therefore, to clear the mess left by Baalu in the surface transport ministry, which handles the important national highways project. However, to cap a period of unedifying haggling, Maran went on record to say shortly after being sworn in that the DMK should have had more ministers.

Since the Congress, with its 200-plus seats, now holds the whipping hand in the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA), one would have expected it to be more stern with greedy allies. But it probably did not want to illtreat the DMK lest it lost ground to its equally demanding rival in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was earlier regarded as a possible winner.

In contrast to the DMK, the other allies exhibited exemplary behaviour, accepting the Congress’s prerogative as the No. 1 party to allocate portfolios. As expected, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress became the railway minister. As the leader of a one-person party, she did not seem to favour anyone else from her party becoming a cabinet minister. So, six from her party became ministers of state.

The Congress has also been quite generous towards the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) considering that it gave its leader, Sharad Pawar, all the portfolios he held in the last cabinet - agriculture, food and civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution. This gesture was somewhat surprising since Pawar did not seem totally loyal before the elections when he hobnobbed with the Third Front. His name was also proposed by the Shiv Sena, among others, for the prime minister’s post.

Not surprisingly, when Pawar entered the room in Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s house where the UPA’s first meeting was being held, he first took a chair away from the big guns before his party member, Praful Patel, escorted him to a more prominent place.

Patel, however, suffered a relegation as he was made a minister of state, though with independent charge, despite being a full minister before. Another minister of state from the party is Agatha Sangma, who, at 28, is the youngest member of the cabinet. Her induction was also surprising since her father, former Lok Sabha Speaker, P.A. Sangma, had been cozying up to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the elections and had made a political issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins.

Against the background of the reports that the Congress intends to part company with the NCP in Maharashtra before the assembly polls in the state, the relations between the two parties at the centre will be watched closely.

The choice of the Congress ministers and their portfolios was along expected lines except for the selection of S.M. Krishna as the external affairs minister. The former Karanataka chief minister and Maharashtra governor may initially feel a little out of his depth in his new, unaccustomed position, especially at a time of turmoil in the neighbourhood with Pakistan imploding, Sri Lanka still coping with the bloody aftermath of a civil war and the Maoists in Nepal uncertain about their role in a democracy.

Otherwise, the continuation of Pranab Mukherjee in finance, P. Chidambaram in home and A.K. Antony in defence was expected. Mukherjee, the Congress’s man for all seasons, will undoubtedly focus on the revival of the economy at a time of recession while Chidambaram will carry on his task of strengthening internal security, with which he was entrusted after 26/11.

The arrival of the aerial-borne radar system from Israel soon after Antony’s reappointment as the defence minister shows that he remains engaged in his job of boosting the strength of the country’s armed forces.

Among those who fell by the wayside was the former human resource development minister, Arjun Singh, a sulking heavyweight who became an embarrassment for the government with his penchant for striking out on his own on sensitive policy matters, such as reservations for the backward castes in higher educational institutions. It was no secret that he was driven by resentment over Manmohan Singh’s elevation to the prime minister’s post.

His place has been taken by the eminent lawyer, Kapil Sibal, who is expected to restore a semblance of sanity in the ministry, which needs to pay greater attention to primary education.

Similarly, Ghulam Nabi Azad is expected to bring the healthy ministry back on track after the antics of the former minister, Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK, derailed it. The latter’s sole concern was to deprive premier institutions like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences of their autonomy.

Another prominent omission was of former law minister, Hansraj Bhardwaj. Perhaps his suspected role in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) giving a clean chit to Italian businessman, Ottavio Quottrocchi, whose name is related to the Bofors gun purchase scandal, was not appreciated because it gave the Congress, and especially the Gandhi family, a bad name.

For all the drama before the two swearing-in ceremonies, Team Manmohan has a settled look, suggesting that it should be able to act more purposefully this time than during the last five years when the Congress was heavily dependent on pushy allies like the Left. It also has the satisfaction of knowing that its principal opponent, the BJP, is too demoralised to create any problems in the immediate future.

The prospects for the government, therefore, are reasonably bright.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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