Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Media disappointment over cabinet reshuffle unjustified.....In government, there is more need for the Dravids than the Tendulkars....

Media is quite clearly disappointed with the cabinet reshuffle. Quite clearly, it’s case of media itself raising expectations to extremely high levels and then feeling disappointed.  Really what did the media expect? That Pranab Mukherjee would be replaced with a younger Renuka Chaudhury? That Chidambaram would yield to a greenhorn like Sachin Pilot? Media tends to over-emphasize youth, individual excellence, apolitical background.....but fails to understand that the cabinet is not the Indian cricket team where all this is perfect. Government is a much more serious affair that requires maturity, team play and sensitivity to politics.....

Let’s be clear about one thing. The cabinet is made up of politicians. It needs to be made up of politicians. I have often accused the Congress of having downplayed its politicians in favor of the “young dudes” as it were.....the likes of Jairam Ramesh, Kapil Sibal, Nandan Nilekani (though not a minister) etc. What we cannot forget (though we would like to) is that the cabinet functions only when it enjoys the support of the ruling party and the ruling party of the entire Parliament. Politics is paramount in the choice of cabinet members and other members of the Executive. So while it’s great to have apolitical leaders, there has to be a nice balance with political ones. Likewise, age is a crucial factor in politics. The meaning of “young” in politics is vastly different from what it means to us in our real life. At 60, a political leader is considered young! Also, its fashionable to downplay the importance of experience in running a political job. With age comes maturity.....a key requirement in a Parliamentary form of government. Even the corporate world recognizes that.....a recent story in The Economic Times indicated that the 50+s are now being favored as CEOs (thank god for that!). Seniors tend to be less “firebrand” and that’s great in politics....especially when there is a coalition government in place. And finally this media fetish for “individual excellence”. We like the Jairam Ramesh’s as ministers – after all, he is an IIT/MIT engineer – and he’s performed brilliantly as the Environment minister (more on him later). But in government, while individual brilliance is great to have, it necessarily has to be balanced with more of “team play”. I remember my former boss (thanks Mr. Parigi!) used to say: In a team, we need more Rahul Dravids (stable, low profile, team player) than Sachin Tendulkars (individual brilliance)! No one likes this truth, but it is still the truth!

So let’s remove these three criticisms of media and then decide what the cabinet reshuffle means:

Jairam Ramesh: He’s done an outstanding job in the environment ministry, though he didn’t do the one thing that I would use to measure the ministry: Why hasn’t he allowed sea-side eateries/entertainment zones etc in our metros? Anywhere in the world, the best, most premium, “night life” spots are along the shore....somehow our environment ministry believes that this will harm the environment. That sea-fronts should be reserved for ugly looking mangroves, littered with plastic bags and worse. On a more serious note, he did well in bringing the ministry to the fore. On the flip side, I don’t think an environment minister should ever be referred to as “Dr. No”. Having the power to say “No” puts a huge responsibility on the incumbent. But that’s what happens with these young, brash, IIT-educated, “individually brilliant” ministers....they don’t understand government....and they rub everyone the wrong way with their inflated self-opinions. In a way, Jayanthi Natarajan is better than Jairam Ramesh. She’s less brilliant, but is a team-player (and a politician who understands Parliament much better). What I am really excited about is Jairam Ramesh in the rural ministry. This is the one ministry that requires huge amounts of individual brilliance and a raising of its profile. Imagine if he could make the NREGA more efficient.....the impact on the rural unemployed poor would be tremendous. Imagine if he could implement the Food Security Act really well. Imagine, if he could repair the Public Distribution System even a wee bit. From “Dr. No’, he has to chance now to become “Dr. Do” and that’s why I am so excited!

No change to top 3 positions: Media may not like this, but “stability” amongst the top leaders is a great virtue in governance. Whenever a senior Presidential aide leaves in the US, it is considered a set-back for the President. Why should it be any different here in India? I think that Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram have done an outstanding job in their ministries. They are both efficient in their work, mature (remember how they handled the “bugging of FM’s office” issue?) and are astute politicians. Chidambaram has brought a lot of seriousness to the internal security apparatus even though “Home” is a subject handled primarily by the state governments. In a federal polity, the central Home Minister has to be savvy in dealing with different parties at the state level. Pranab Mukherjee has done an outstanding job in handling the economic slow-down (financial stimulus) while still balancing it with the opposite objective of lowering the fiscal deficit. Sure, the inflation has been an area of concern, but that’s largely attributable to external factors. I am also OK with Antony continuing as Defense Minister, even though I would prefer a more action-oriented one. The government’s preference for Antony is obvious – he is squeaky clean. And in spite of all the provocation, the defense is not the priority of the country at the moment.

Unhappy about SM Krishna being retained: I have written earlier that SM Krishna should have been replaced by Shashi Tharoor. SM Krishna is clearly out of his depths in dealing with the new opportunities India has today. We have the chance of a lifetime of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a chance to contribute enormously to the world economy (G20), a chance to shape the worldwide consensus on environment, a chance to shape global trade treaties (GATT), the job of protecting India’s security environment in the face of a troublesome Pakistan and an aggressive China, the responsibility of finding new partners like Japan, the US and Israel.....all of this requires a fresh mindset, a bundle of energy, an ability to network internationally, to speak “their” language.....and I think Shashi Tharoor (if he tweeted a little less!) would have been a better choice.

Salman Khursheed: I think he is the kind of ministers one wants to see more of. He is suave, young, political minded and extremely important given that he comes from UP. He is a solid team player and I think a modern thinker too. The Law Ministry is him home turf and he is bound to do well here.

Frankly, the rest of the changes don’t matter that much. I am happy with the continuance of Kapil Sibal in Telecom and HRD (he has to write the new Telecom policy and clear various copyright issues in HRD) and with Anand Sharma in Commerce (Exports have been booming). The TOI, in a rare appreciation of the Congress, has said good things about KC Deo (Tribal Affairs), Palam Singh Ghatower (Dev of North East), Rajiv Shukla (Parliamentary Affairs), Charan Das Mahant (agriculture), Milind Deora (Commerce), Beni Prasad Verma (Steel) and Jitendra Singh (Home).

What I also like is that some of the devils have been shown the door. MS Gill (CWG related), Murli Deora (he was indicted in the CAG’s report on favoring Reliance), Maran (obviously!)......I believe that Arun Yadav and A Sai Pratap were non-performers and hence their dropping is a good sign.

What I am disappointed with truly is the continuance with Sharad Pawar (the wily fox who knows he is indispensable!) and Vilasrao Deshmukh (a minister who inspires absolutely zero confidence). But such is the nature of Parliamentary democracy.....politics trumps performance!

The real truth is that media’s criticism of the reshuffle is too harsh. If we remove our bias towards the young, the apolitical and individual brilliance, this reshuffle is as good as could be expected. The “saare ghar ke badal dalo” approach simply doesn’t work in real life. But have you noticed how casually we take in our stride today that slowly.....but surely.....governance is becoming a serious, responsible, and accountable business? Imagine this – in the past, ministers were always chosen for political reasons; never for their competency. And ministers were never dropped for non-performance. India is changing and this is good for everybody!


  1. Thank you Prashant,

    its strange but just a couple of days back i was debating a very old view of mine : that history n civilized societies were built over years n years in fact centuries, civilization has an underlying fundamental or say an element of time built in, age is just a number ,what it tells you or anyone is that , its time to start a new chapter in life, school kids to college, college students to working professionals etc ; yes we need young blood , its a must but that should not become cosmetic n a populist initiative ...performance, regional balances etc are paramount :, the dynamics of a parliamentary democracy is such (well described in your blog)

    what we as a society n thinking individuals have to understand is "sometimes trends never respect the past and are insensitive to the present " India is definitely changing , the noise of democracy should not be seen as a sign of chaos: the genesis of the sustained Noise is the gift to the nation by the UPA ,thats the RTI, every such movement/ freedom has its natural consequences... parigi mumbai 11.47 am 13th july 2011

  2. Thx Mr. Parigi! It feels great to get your feedback! Cannot agree more with you! But then, there is so much I've learnt from you that many of my views are a reflection of your views!