From Byword – India Today (July 25)
It's becoming a habit. Whenever Congress gets a headache it orders a foot massage. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi recognised the size of their problem, which is why they met four times, one-to-one, in their attempt to stabilise a government that had lost shape and begun to wobble. They did not need to save the Government, since they have not lost it, yet. UPA 2 can splutter along on the usual paradox: the bigger the crisis, the closer partners cling together, since elections can only bring bad news. What Government has lost is the confidence of the people. The reshuffle was an opportunity for radical renewal of an administration immobilised by corrupt politicians, comatose administration, an angry Supreme Court, and citizens outraged by venality and inflation. All that Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh managed was surface tinkering that induced a yawn from a handful of winners, a yelp from a basketload of losers, and puns by the tonne in newspaper headlines which opted for wit in the absence of substance.
The smiles were few, silent and strained; the yelp was picked up by media nationwide. It is not, as the prime minister correctly noted, terribly significant that Gurudas Kamat and Srikant Jena were upset at being denied a place in Cabinet. Parliament is packed with MPs who believe that they should be in Cabinet, and Cabinet teems with ministers who think they should be prime minister. The story is that their behaviour is part of a growing pattern of indiscipline, which is slowly disintegrating into disarray.
Mukul Roy, the little-known minister of state for railways, had the audacity to taunt the PM when told to visit the site of a railway accident at Fatehpur. Instead of being dropped, he was promoted to independent charge of shipping. If Roy had insulted his party leader Mamata Banerjee, he would have been out of a job. Ergo: he knows whom to respect. Veerappa Moily blithely attributed his demotion from law to corporate affairs to "vested interests", implying that the PM is beholden to such interests. Every such remark whittles away the authority of a Prime Minister. A weak government begins to melt from the head, or at least the neck.
Immutable law of politics: Never shut a door that can be left ajar. The prime minister did himself no favours when he asserted that this would be the last reshuffle before general elections in 2014. I have never been able to fully understand why 'gruntled' is not the opposite of 'disgruntled', but mysteries of the English language include dysfunctional logic. However, for every gruntled person in Delhi there are a hundred who are disgruntled. Their self-respect survives in hope. They have no other answer to the question gnawing at their hearts when it is not sprawled over conversation: why have you not become a minister? The last alibi is gone. There is no next reshuffle. Their only option now is transference of hope, to the next prime minister. Since every Congressman knows his name, all future applications will be addressed to Rahul Gandhi.
Such pinpoint confidence certainly worked for the backward caste leader from Uttar Pradesh, who defected from Mulayam Singh Yadav's party to Congress, Beni Prasad Verma. He is our glistening new Cabinet minister for steel. This is not the messiah Indian industry was waiting for; this is not the economic brain who will bring inflation under control. Verma's star has evolved into a meteor through collateral benefit; Rahul Gandhi believes that this will bring him additional votes in the next UP Assembly elections.
All politics is sold as welfare of the people; the truth of democracy is that politics impels Cabinet promotion more easily than ideas or competence. The prime minister probably had a far more difficult time in making the environment ministry more environment friendly to investment, and law ministry more conversant with law than Rahul Gandhi had in putting some steel into his UP gambit. This is the conundrum that has harried Dr Singh. The time left to solve the riddle is ebbing, even as delay turns a headache into migraine.