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May 13, 2011, 05.46 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Congress will seek to refurbish image with Cabinet rejig

The state elections are behind us. All eyes are now on the next cabinet reshuffle.

Congress will seek to refurbish image with Cabinet rejig
By Sanjay Pugalia

The state elections are behind us. All eyes are now on the next cabinet reshuffle. The Prime Minister had promised a "bigger" reshuffle before the monsoon session of Parliament. Since the state polls have offered very little for the UPA to talk about, one should expect the Congress to harp on the reshuffle to lift the mood and morale of the party as it prepares for the royal rumble in Uttar Pradesh next year. Through the reshuffle, it will also try to assure restless Indians that it’s getting back to work. The other event to watch out for is the second report card of UPA-II as it completes its second year in office on May 21.

While the spin doctors of the Congress will proclaim that state elections have gone in its favour as the party and its alliances have won four out of five states (including Puducherry), there is no respite for either the party or the UPA. West Bengal’s victory is Mamata’s victory. Kerala has followed the well established trend of alternating between the LDF and UDF. On Tamil Nadu, the Congress will say (but not openly) that it is paying the price for the DMK’s corruption. However, the party will be relieved that a defeated DMK will now behave better as coalition partner. Assam is a well-deserved victory for Tarun Gogoi and his strong lieutenants like state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

The Congress may try to make a case for itself by implying that the popular mood is not against the party - as the opposition and commentators are trying to portray. But if you look at the number of seats it has won in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, you will realise that the party has fared poorly. It has got eight seats in Tamil Nadu and lost an Andhra Lok Sabha bypoll to YSR’s son Jagan Reddy. This indicates that the ground is shifting beneath the Congress’ feet. Both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were vital for the Congress’ victory in the last Lok Sabha elections.

So what implications do the results have for national politics and governance? Will the disarray in the UPA and the Congress party end? Will the government be able to get its act together and get back to work? This poll verdict has opened a small window for the Prime Minster to be able to handle these questions. The weakened bargaining power of the DMK is a plus, but what about Mamata? My guess is that Mamata won’t give any major headache to the Centre in the short term as she needs the Congress’ proactive help to effectively change things in West Bengal. She may have made noises that sounded anti-development in the past, but we could see a new Mamata now. There will be a clear give and take with the UPA now. Mamata will be given various financial packages on the condition that she will support the passage of the key bills that the Congress must push, including land acquisition.

Talk in Delhi is back to the old topic: Will the PM assert himself now and will he get a free hand? While my own view has been that these are wrong questions to ask, the PM and Sonia Gandhi enjoy a very enigmatic relationship, where there is no room for conflict, only quiet, gentle persuasion. In then ultimate analysis, things fall into place the way Mrs Gandhi wants them to after listening to all views.

So, what kind of cabinet reshuffle will happen now? To give an illustration, why do non-performing minsters like Veer Bhadra Singh continue in the cabinet? He was removed from the steel ministry to an “easy” ministry like micro, small and medium industry. Based on performance, he shouldn’t even be there but the party thinks in conventional ways: who will represent Rajputs in the cabinet? Are there equally senior people available who could send the same message to the community? Moreover, we can’t get Digvijaya Singh into the cabinet as he is doing critical work for the party and is not an MP. So what to do? Continue with Veer Bhadra. This is how the logic goes.

The problem with the UPA is that, barring three or four of them, all the rest are insecure. Their worry is: where will we figure in Rahul Gandhi’s scheme of things? All big political decisions are now being filtered through this factor – do things keeping the succession plan for Rahul in mind. All junior ministers are still complaining that they are not being given real work by their senior ministers. So no real grooming is happening to create tomorrow’s skilled decision-makers. In the last reshuffle, Uttar Pradesh was given more representation; the next round will also see some more action on UP. With the current political map, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh become very critical for the Congress in 2014, but these states are well represented in the cabinet. Still we will see some more faces from Andhra in wake of Jagan Reddy’s effort to mount a new opposition force in the state.

Past experience shows that Congress reshuffles end in a whimper, given the pressures and compromises. Will it be any different this time, where the Cabinet will look more purposeful? From the management of the economy to the reforms agenda to the challenges posed by the Maoist movement, all issues appear to be getting out of hand.

With this poll verdict, another key Congress headache will be about managing alliances. The space vacated by the Left has been taken by parties which may be equally willing to parent with the NDA. Friday the 13th has left the Congress with difficult choices to make befre the 2014 elections.

The author is Editor-in-Chief, CNBC Awaaz

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