x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Manmohan Singh disappoints critics with minimalist Indian cabinet reshuffle

Prime minister's second reshuffle in seven months gives message that he 'continues to be guided firmly by Sonia Gandhi rather than by his own ideas', observers say.

NEW DELHI // The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, reshuffled his cabinet for the second time in seven months to deflect criticism that his government is corrupt and his leadership weakening.

But this time, as in January, Dr Singh's promised shake-up proved to be minimal - an anticlimax, considering that he met Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party, as many as four times over the past week to discuss changes to his government.

The frequency of those meetings was seen as evidence that the prime minister was fighting for what he had said would be "expansive" changes to his cabinet.

Chintamani Mahapatra, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said: "People were expecting that, in the light of a series of corruption charges against ministers, Dr Singh would do some housecleaning/ This wasn't reflected in the reshuffle at all, and the message will go around now that he continues to be guided firmly by Sonia Gandhi rather than by his own ideas."

Ms Gandhi would have wanted to reshuffle ministers according to the needs of coalition politics, Mr Mahapatra suggested, while Dr Singh would have wanted to press for changes based simply on good governance.

Shahnawaz Hussain, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said in a statement: "The reshuffle clearly shows that the government does not care about popular sentiment. People expected significant changes this time."

The four biggest government portfolios - dealing with finance, home affairs, external affairs and defence - will continue to be held by their incumbent ministers. A host of ministers of state - junior ministers - were named to various ministries.

The most prominent change was the elevation of Jairam Ramesh to the rank of cabinet minister. Mr Ramesh, who had been the tough-talking environmental minister, has now been put in charge of the rural development ministry which gives him a position in the cabinet.

This new assignment is being seen as a reward for Mr Ramesh's work in enforcing environmental controls on industry and in implementing projects such as the massive effort to clean the polluted Ganges river.

The rural development ministry, which is at the heart of the government's flagship rural employment guarantee scheme, is seen as a critical post because of the massive voter base in rural India.

Dr Singh's sole political statement in this reshuffle came in his refusal to name anybody from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a south Indian party that is a coalition ally of the Congress, to a ministerial post.

Two ministers from the DMK have had to resign during the past nine months for their involvement in a telecommunications corruption scandal that is under investigation. One of those former ministers, A Raja, is in prison awaiting trial, while the other former minister, Dayanidhi Maran, resigned last week.

The telecommunications scam has been foremost among the corruption controversies that have emerged from Dr Singh's two-year-old government. A report from India's auditor-general has estimated that the scam cost the government nearly Dh139 billion in revenue.

"So not giving the DMK a ministerial berth is maybe the most significant aspect of this reshuffle," Mr Mahapatra said. "The prime minister is hinting that he can get on perfectly well without the DMK's support, and really, the DMK now is so weak that it has no option but to continue to be on board in the coalition. Otherwise they'll even more marginalised. They'll be nowhere in the picture."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae