Cabinet Reshuffle Changes Little in India’s Political Outlook

Congress still copes with unsustainable state spending and a feudalist party structure.

Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deliver a joint press conference in New Delhi, May 16, 2009
Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deliver a joint press conference in New Delhi, May 16, 2009 (Reuters)

Sunday saw one of the biggest midterm cabinet shakeups in India since the United Progressive Alliance formed the government in 2004. The reason it is considered “big” is largely due to the fact that it heralds a generational change and lowers the average age of the cabinet.

The specifics of the cabinet reshuffle are less important than the power structure of the ruling Congress party and the electoral and structural dynamics of the country.

The National Congress has in its second term lost significant sympathy as a result of a nigh total policy paralysis and almost daily stories of monumental corruption, causing a string of electoral reverses in state elections.

True power in the party rests with its president, Sonia Gandhi, who is not a member of the government. The split between executive and political power seldom works since in most cases, Gandhi can veto any decision that is made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. No change was made in this party structure on Sunday so the fundamental political outlook of the Congress cannot have changed either.

This outlook includes the firm belief that unsustainable social spending, like the rural employment guarantee scheme, is what won the congress the 2009 election. This is only true up to a point.

The economic ossification that India is heading toward means that the revenue to support such wasteful spending simply isn’t there. Every minister in the cabinet owes his or her election to precisely this kind of wasteful spending and socialist engineering, however, especially the younger ones.

These young Congress leaders, called the “Rahul boys” after Rahul Gandhi, Sonia’s son, who may seek the prime ministership in 2014, have little experience outside politics. All of them have proper educational “degrees” though in a country where pieces of paper and a “not Indian sounding” English accent often substitute for real acumen or ability. Rahul himself lost two consecutive elections in the critical states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The promotions of his acolytes has more to with the failure reinforcing behavior that characterizes terminal dynasties than merit

As Ivor Jennings, a British era civil servant, astutely observed, partition resulted in two things: Pakistan got the army, India got the bureaucracy and they would hang around their necks like a noose.

In Pakistan, the disastrous effect of army control is plainly visible but in India, due to the more benign nature of bureaucratic rule, the detrimental impact of the same is largely glossed over as a “governance deficit.” The reality is that less than 5 percent of any outlays actually gets to the people it targets and politicians cannot, for legal reasons, circumvent the bureaucracy.

This has resulted in rule by patronage and hence the regional representation is a critical factor in any cabinet. What is surprising therefore is that Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal states already in the Congress’ pocket have been given significant representation in the run-up to the 2014 general election. The key swing states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress fares miserably, have been given a pass. The important state of Gujarat, where there will be elections in a few months, has also been ignored. This is surprising as it was a good opportunity to weaken its chief minister Narendra Modi who is speculated to be the next prime ministerial candidate for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and hence Rahul’s and Sonia’s main rival.

Irrespective of its spurts of liberalization — usually too little, too late — Congress remains heavily dependent on left-wing parties for its majority. It is telling that although the liberalization that began under Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s lifted three hundred million Indians out of poverty, the country is still ambiguous on the merits of this policy.

The cabinet shakeup is ultimately little more than a cosmetic change. A party structure and parliamentary majority dedicated to unsustainable social spending, an irrelevant and powerless prime minister, the fundamentally feudal nature of Indian democracy and a rapidly stagnating economy allow for nothing more.