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Manmohan Singh's Indian cabinet reshuffle leaves core intact

Move is less a renewal of the cabinet than a mere reshuffle; four core ministries, home affairs, finance, external affairs and defence, will continue to be headed by the incumbent ministers.

Left to right, the cabinet ministers Sriprakash Jaiswal, Praful Patel and Beni Prasad Verma make way for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, at yesterday's swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi.
Left to right, the cabinet ministers Sriprakash Jaiswal, Praful Patel and Beni Prasad Verma make way for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, at yesterday's swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // In a bid to revamp the image of his corruption-tainted government ahead of crucial state elections, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, announced a rearrangement of his cabinet yesterday.

The move proved less a renewal of his cabinet than a mere reshuffle; ministers lost one berth but gained another. Further, the four core ministries, home affairs, finance, external affairs and defence, will continue to be headed by the incumbent ministers.

The reshuffle was the first since the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the general elections in the summer of 2009.

A more substantial cabinet shake-up will take place after the February budget session of parliament, Mr Singh said yesterday.

Prominently, among the ministries that were reassigned, the civil aviation portfolio has been handed from Praful Patel to Vayalar Ravi; the petroleum and natural gas ministry will be headed by S Jaipal Reddy; and Kamal Nath lost the highways portfolio but gained the urban development ministership.

MS Gill, who was the embattled sports minister during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, with its attendant corruption allegations and mismanagement of schedules, will now oversee statistics and programme implementation.

Chintamani Mahapatra, a political analyst and a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said: "It's true that, in most democracies, in the middle of the term, governments reshuffle their cabinets to include people who've been left out or weed out people who've been doing badly."

The timing of the reshuffle, preceding elections in the key states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, "will help deflect attention" from the various scandals, Mr Mahapatra said, allowing the Congress to campaign on the premise that it cleaned up its act. The elections will happed this year, although a date has not been set.

Scandals plagued the UPA government through much of 2010. The organisation of the Commonwealth Games, for instance, is being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation for corruption. A Congress chief minister in the state of Maharashtra was forced to step down after it was revealed that members of his family owned apartments in an upmarket, illegally constructed housing complex in south Mumbai.

Most crucially, a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General accused A Raja, the UPA's former telecommunications minister, of a telecom scandal in which second-generation mobile phone licences were sold off by the government for a fraction of their value, leading to potential revenue losses of up to US$38 billion (Dh140bn). Mr Raja resigned in November, but the fallout of that particular controversy has haunted the government.

Mr Singh's image, in particular, has suffered. "Nobody has challenged his sincerity and honesty, but being the head of the government and cabinet, he must always take the final responsibility for misgovernance," Mr Mahapatra said. "So it is, in part, possibly to keep his clean image intact that he is making this reshuffle."

Ever since the 2G controversy broke, Mr Singh has been under pressure from the political opposition and from civil society groups to address corruption. In a Congress party meeting in late December, he chose to make corruption the focus of his speech, promising that "nobody guilty will be spared".

The cabinet reshuffle also comes a couple of days after 14 leading citizens, including bankers, justices, and heads of industry, wrote an open letter to political leaders, expressing their alarm at a "widespread governance deficit" and demanding that corruption be tackled "on a war footing".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters