The mini-reshuffle of the Union Cabinet is disappointing. True, the appointment of P Chidambaram as a full-time finance minister is a relief; the prime minister’s month-long stewardship of the ministry did not feature any major new directions or fresh policy initiatives. As home minister, Mr Chidambaram provided a clear direction to policies pertaining to internal security. He is now expected to take firm charge of the government's finances, which are in dire need of prudent management. However, the vacancy at the home ministry has been filled with Sushil Kumar Shinde, till then serving as power minister. Power has thus been given to Veerappa Moily, as an additional charge; he remains minister for corporate affairs.
This sequence of appointments, taken together, is extremely problematic. It reveals an almost incomprehensible level of carelessness on the part of the leadership of the Congress party regarding the challenges facing India — which it has helped create and which it must take the lead in solving. Most glaring is the total lack of accountability involved in promoting Mr Shinde to what has traditionally been seen as the second-most powerful job in the Cabinet — on the same day that 20 states lost power for hours thanks to a second major electrical grid collapse in as many days. While much of the responsibility for the collapse lies with the states, Central supervision of regulation has clearly failed, as have the government’s attempts to increase capacity and utilise existing capacity efficiently. Any government or political party that took its responsibility to the people half-seriously would have asked Mr Shinde, however trusted, to leave the Cabinet. The level of detachment required to instead promote the errant minister is almost beyond understanding.
Meanwhile, the assignment of that troubled power portfolio, the location of some of the UPA government’s most visible failures, as an additional charge to another minister is certainly beyond comprehension. Other ministries held as additional charge include telecom, with HRD Minister Kapil Sibal; textiles, with Commerce Minister Anand Sharma; and water resources, with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal. Not-so-coincidentally, these three sectors are also in crisis. Seen thus, the UPA’s indifference to India’s troubles seems irremediable.
Hopes for a partial recovery now lie with Mr Chidambaram. Naturally, his first priority must be to control the deficit: according to data from the Controller General of Accounts, in just the first quarter of 2012-13, the fiscal deficit had already reached 37 per cent of the amount Budgeted for the entire financial year. (Last year, in the same period, it was 39 per cent; eventually, Budget targets were missed by a huge amount.) Mr Chidambaram, who originated the direct taxes code plan, must swiftly apply it — in a form as close to its original, effective formulation as possible. Some form of tax incentives for investment should also be considered. The new finance minister could make a swift difference — as long as he considers economic measures rather than purely administrative responses to the crisis, and that he takes care that those close to him are not allowed to sully his stewardship of the economy.