If this was an international football game and Prime Minister Narendra Modi India’s coach, eyebrows would be raised. With so much talent in the team, why are players capable of winning matches warming the bench?
A cabinet reshuffle is long overdue. Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jay Panda are two men who could add much-needed gravitas to the council of ministers. Other ministers whose talent could be more widely used in a cabinet reshuffle include Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal.
Sidelined former ministers like Rajyavardhan Rathore are meanwhile being wasted on the bench. An Olympic Games silver medalist, Rathore would take the burden off the affable Prakash Javadekar who does justice to neither the environment nor information and broadcasting ministry.
He should be relieved of at least one of these. Ravi Shankar Prasad too is over-taxed with two vital ministries — law and justice and information technology. He should concentrate on one.
The Prime Minister is clearly not pleased with the performance of several ministers. He has sought presentations from each ministry on pledged outcomes over the past two years.
A better option is to make it mandatory for every minister to upload on the ministry’s website a monthly report on targets and outcomes along with new initiatives planned with timelines. A monthly management information system (MIS) is indispensable in the corporate sector. It is even more critical in government to improve public accountability.
All this is necessary as Modi gears up for what could be the most challenging period in his prime ministership. The Opposition is coalescing. The experiment of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government in Maharashtra comprising the right-wing Shiv Sena, left-wing Congress and minority-leaning Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been more successful than most expected.
Can such an ideologically disparate coalition government work at the Centre? NCP leader Sharad Pawar, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal think it can. They have willing accomplices in Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and several other regional parties.
The elephant in the room is the Congress. Like an ageing, cantankerous uncle, it refuses to go away and make room for other Opposition leaders, allowing the Gandhi family to take a back seat.
Of course that has happened once before. In 1996-98, the Congress supported the United Front coalition government from outside. It let, first, H D Deve Gowda and then, Inder Kumar Gujral be appointed prime minister before toppling each within less than a year.
But there is a big difference in the Congress’ internal dynamic between 1996-98 and 2021-24. In 1996, Sonia Gandhi was still grieving, following her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination five years earlier.
P V Narasimha Rao had been appointed prime minister in the 1991-96 Congress government. From 1992-96, he served as Congress president before handing over charge to Sitaram Kesri. It was a rare period when a Gandhi was neither prime minister nor Congress president.
In 1996, Rahul Gandhi was 26, Priyanka Gandhi 24. The family could afford to wait.
In 1998, Sonia swung into action. She removed Kesri and installed herself as Congress president. Ever since, only a Gandhi – Sonia or Rahul – has held that position.
But 2024 will be different for two reasons. One, Sonia Gandhi knows that if the Opposition, comprising regional satraps like Mamata Banerjee, Pawar and the two Yadavs, stitch together 150-plus seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, it would need the support of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or UPA (including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and others) to get past 272 seats.
Sonia Gandhi, though unwell, remains interim president of the Congress and head of the UPA. She has lost none of her political instincts and may, as in 1996, play along with the “Third Front”, supporting it from outside to deny the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a third successive term, biding time for Rahul Gandhi’s eventual ascension. That may or may not ever happen, but politics is the art of the possible.
The second key factor is choosing a prime ministerial face among the regional Opposition leaders. As he did in Maharashtra, Pawar will play a crucial role. He will shrewdly suggest that the Opposition leader whose party wins the highest number of Lok Sabha seats in 2024 should be the coalition’s consensus prime minister.
If Pawar announces this before the 2024 Lok Sabha poll, it will solve the problem of a ragtag coalition fighting a general election without a prime ministerial face and end infighting among regional leaders. If India could live with a relatively unknown regional leader like Deve Gowda as prime minister in 1996, Pawar will argue, why can’t it live with a Mamata Banerjee in 2024?
The question could of course become academic if Modi uses the next two-and-a-half years, before on-ground campaigning for the 2024 general election begins in real earnest, to do three things:
One, overcome the Covid pandemic with an effective vaccination rollout by end-2021, along with a vastly improved healthcare infrastructure;
Two, infuse more talent in the Union cabinet with monthly reporting on outcomes from each ministry;
Three, boost the economy with enhanced government spending to create a post-Covid consumption boom and new jobs.
There are favourable signs that economic growth in 2021-22 could beat estimates and cross 10 per cent. Startups are buzzing. Stocks are on fire. Corporate profits have risen steeply. Exports are likely to hit an historic high of $400 billion this fiscal. Foreign investment is pouring into both manufacturing and services.
As Punit Renjen, global chief executive officer of Deloitte, told The Economic Times earlier this month: “India is a very attractive destination. And it is attractive because the fundamentals are attractive: the talent pool, the demographics, the consumer base, the democratic tradition.”
The downside is that Modi faces seven tough assembly elections, including Uttar Pradesh, in 2022 and three tricky ones in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in late 2023, months before the Lok Sabha poll. Anti-incumbency is rife.
The Centre’s inaction in the face of continuing incidents of murder and rape in West Bengal by Trinamool Congress workers, compelling the Supreme Court to hear the victims’ PILs, has alienated the BJP’s core base.
To win a third successive term, Modi will have to abandon sainthood and rediscover the political streetfighter that resides within him.
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