Notably absent from the list of seven new ministers was Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old son of Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi.
Singh gives scandal-tainted cabinet a facelift with younger ministers
NEW DELHI // India's prime minister Manmohan Singh gave his cabinet an overdue facelift yesterday, bringing in younger ministers in a bid to breathe new life into his aged, scandal-tainted government ahead of state and national elections. Despite the reshuffle, relatively few senior ministers in the cabinet led by 80-year-old Mr Singh are under age 65.
Notably absent from the list of seven new ministers was Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old son of Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi. Congress party leaders said he would concentrate on reviving the fortunes of the party before national elections in 2014. Mr Gandhi, a scion of the India's politically powerful Nehru-Gandhi family, is the son and grandson and great-grandson of two prime ministers. He is presumed to be a prime minister-in-waiting, but so far he has held no government positions. "I would have been happy to include Rahul in the Cabinet, but he has other preoccupations in the party," Mr Singh told reporters.
While that dynastic political drama played out offstage, the seven new ministers and 15 junior ministers took the oath of office at a brief ceremony in New Delhi for Mr Singh's reshuffling of almost a quarter of his 30-member cabinet. He changed key portfolios, including oil, foreign policy, railways and justice. As part of the image makeover, the prime minister also brought in a slew of younger politicians in their 30s and 40s, including four women.
Mr Singh's elderly cabinet has been seen as increasingly out of touch with the country's youthful electorate. Politicians in India generally reach senior positions late in life - a reflection of a traditional respect for elders.
"The road ahead is full of challenges. But this is a team, which I hope will be able to meet those challenges," Mr Singh said. "The party also needs strengthening. Men and women of experience can be equally productive in strengthening the party."
Mr Singh's government has been built on a shaky coalition, along with being paralysed by infighting, and has struggled to pass major economic reforms. Since 2010, it has also faced a slew of corruption allegations.
Senior government officials and current and former cabinet ministers are facing charges of criminal conspiracy over the so-called 2G scandal, where it is alleged that contracts to provide mobile data services were sold far below their worth. The government also recently faced allegations regarding improperly allocating India's coal reserves. The government has denied all allegations.
Others are facing allegations of misappropriation of funds, such as Salman Khurshid, India's former law minister who was sworn in as India's foreign minister yesterday. He faces allegations of corruption about financial irregularities at camps he runs for the physically challenged.
Experts say that the Congress party's decision to provide him with what many view as a promotion, is a sign that the government is preparing for a fight ahead of the next elections.
"Image has always been an issue they are battling with. They have tried to show that they are not going to get bogged down by the image issue," said Rasheed Kidwai, political analyst and author of Sonia: A Biography, a biography of Sonia Gandhi. "Especially if you look at the new foreign minister."
India's two largest opposition parties scoffed at the shakeup, dubbing it a futile exercise by a scandal-tainted government. "It is a vain exercise by the government to refurbish its image in the face of the corruption charges it is facing," said Rajiv Pratap Rudi, spokesman of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
"The policies of the government will be the same they have been pursuing," said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
Mr Gandhi has been publicly urged by several ministers over the past few months to lead the party. Even without an official title, Mr Gandhi could extend his influence in the council of ministers without directly exposing him to potential damage if the government's popularity fails to pick up.
"Mr Singh would like to prepare him for the future and he also realises the paucity of time," said Mr Kidwai. "His [Gandhi] problem is how to show he is an achiever. If anything, he should have joined the cabinet in 2009. Now instead of focusing on one portfolio he has put Team Gandhi in there with all the young ministers first, who will push through his vision."
The so-called Team Gandhi are colleagues of Mr Gandhi who came up the ranks of the Congress Party's Youth Wing. Several of them, including Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia were given ministries yesterday.
The cabinet reshuffle, which has been in the works for the past six months, was also used to fill vacancies left by the Trinamool Congress party in West Bengal, which withdrew from the coalition last month over the decision to allow foreign investment in retail and the reduction in cooking gas subsidies. Three Congress ministers from West Bengal were given junior ministry portfolios, including railways, health and family welfare and urban development.
"This is the prime minister's vision that globalisation should not be confined to the economy alone," said Mr Kidwai. "Economic reforms need to integrate the Indian education system with global trends and standards."
* Additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse