Fresh faces, old issues in India’s new cabinet

October 30, 2012

Remember the Satyam Computer Services scandal of 2009? This was the story in which its founder cooked the company’s books in what became India’s biggest case of corporate fraud till date.

The scam exposed problems that needed fixing at the Corporate Affairs ministry, and after much delay the Companies Bill is ready to come before Parliament. The task of steering the bill will be handled by the new chief of the ministry, Sachin Pilot. At 35, Pilot is the youngest face in the refurbished, and not entirely young council of ministers in India. He also has no experience in corporate affairs, his earlier posting being at the communications and IT ministry. He will be forced to handle an important bill in the winter session of parliament while still wet behind the ears.

Four ministers held this job in the last three-and-a-half years. With changes at the top occurring at the least provocation, it is tough to say what sort of character the ministry might be proud to make for itself when the intersection of politics and business is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Who can really take any credit if things go as planned and who takes the blame when they don’t?

That is the problem with frequent shuffling in the government. When a minister has a job to do, why not make him or her do it? Why not let them grow into the job? Why not give them time to learn and act wisely? And if it’s the minister who’s the problem — someone who just wants to punch a few tickets on the way to a better job — why not choose ministers who show that they want to help their country, not just themselves?

For example, Sachin Pilot could have been made the minister in charge of communications and IT where he has been a junior minister since 2009. He will now have to learn a new job, and get good at it quickly.

Some people think that what you bring to any management job is skill as a manager, and that the thing or task you’re managing is less important. It’s a nice idea, but in a country with plenty of bureaucratic obstacles that pop up when necessary, it’s also a good idea to know your subject better than the person who’s trying to block you.

Pilot isn’t the only case of this intellectual dispersal, if you want to call it that. The same holds true for all the changes made in what is being called a makeover exercise for the government. A defence minister will take care of Human Resource Development, the power minister is now the oil minister, so on and so forth. Some of the choices might be logical, but so much for getting new faces in the Manmohan Singh cabinet.

Not that the cabinet is any younger either, what with the average age still at 65 years. If the government and the Congress party wanted to recognise youngsters for their efforts, they might as well have given them the cabinet rank.

The absence of Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, was not the only damp squib in this reshuffle. Promoting Salman Khurshid when social activists and media are going hammer and tongs against alleged wrongdoings at his NGO only depicts the brazenness of the establishment. Important decisions should not be influenced by mud-slinging (though they often seem to be), but the election season is around the corner and the government is already neck-deep in corruption accusations.

With regional considerations (six MPs from the politically volatile Andhra Pradesh), political equations (Muslim and anti-Mamata Banerjee MPs made ministers) and symbolic gestures (promotion to youngsters) seemingly at the heart of this change in guard, one wonders if the dwindling economy and governance was on anybody’s mind.

In the end, what we see are political moves. Some of them might work out. Who knows; maybe some square pegs found some square holes. But if the right minister found the right job, it might have been an accident. Serendipity is good, but it suggests a lack of planning for anything else but political advantage.

Yes, Prime Minister?

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