Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

India's cabinet reshuffle of 28 October was intended to freshen up the Congress Party in the run-up to the next general election. This follows on from the announcement of a swathe of economic reforms, and now a number of next generation politicians have gained ministerial responsibilities. Seven new Cabinet ministers and 15 junior ministers were appointed, all but one belonging to the Congress Party. These include 41-year old Jyotiraditya Scindia, (who takes the power ministry), 35-year old Sachin Pilot, (corporate affairs) and 46-year old Manish Tewari (information and broadcasting). Older party members, such as the 80-year old foreign minister, SM Krishna, were replaced.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described the new cabinet as 'a mixture of youth and experience', but the average age fell from just 59 to 58, and many have questioned whether the new cabinet has managed to side-step the stain of corruption that has tarred Congress in recent years. Among the notable appointments was the promotion of Salman Khurshid to the position of foreign minister. Only the third Muslim foreign minister, on the one hand his elevation sends a positive signal both to Indian Muslims, and to Pakistan. Hopes of a continued rapprochement with Pakistan have risen since his appointment. But, on the other hand, he faces allegations that he embezzled funds from an NGO run by his family.

There have been expectations that the reshuffle would see the elevation of Sonia Gandhi’s son, Rahul Gandhi. Several members of Rahul’s coterie, such as Scindia and Pilot, were promoted. But Rahul apparently refused to take up a ministerial position, raising questions about his own political ambition. Manmohan Singh said that he was 'disappointed' by Rahul's decision; Rahul has said that he wants to focus on party organization. While he may yet be promoted within the party, this would represent only a titular change given he is already the de facto second-in-command after his mother. 

Rahul's reluctance to become a minister throws his political trajectory into doubt, and raises questions over the leadership of Congress at the general election: this reshuffle was almost certainly his last chance to take a ministerial post before the election. It may be that he is trying to distance himself from the current government, tainted by corruption and, for much of its term, policy paralysis. Alternatively, he may be hoping to undertake a more rigorous overhaul of the Congress Party in the run-up to the election. But since his failed state election campaign in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, claims that he lacks political ambition are growing louder.

Aside from Rahul, there are very few viable candidates to lead Congress. The most prominent figures within Congress lack mass public support and are unlikely to gain support across the party. As recently as September Rahul's sister, Priyanka, denied holding any political ambitions and her husband currently faces a range of questions regarding his wealth. But if the allegations against her husband could be resolved without Priyanka being implicated, the odds in favour of her becoming the next Congress leader would surely fall. 

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticized the reshuffle for retaining corruption-tainted ministers such as Salman Khurshid and for ignoring some states. But the BJP too remains weak. Their party president, Nitin Gadkari, has been accused of financial malpractice, and they lack a clear-cut candidate to replace him. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, is well regarded within the party, but the controversy surrounding the Godhra violence in 2002 means that he would be unlikely to secure enough support across the political spectrum to sustain a workable coalition.

The reaction to the reshuffle in India's media has been ambivalent. Some ministers accused of corruption were promoted. The younger politicians that were promoted are to some extent undermined by Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to take on a ministerial position. At best local commentators described the reshuffle as 'safe'. At worst, as the Times of India put it, the reshuffle represented 'the last gasp of an ancient regime that has neither the ideas nor a leader to address the aspirations of a new India'.

While this may be the case, the reshuffle may also reflect the realization that state politics matters. The growing strength of regional parties has been widely discussed: in the 1950s and 60s, Congress itself acted as more of a federal party, with policies catering for different states. Indira Gandhi introduced a more centralized system; now the party sits somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the reshuffle was the regional affiliation of new ministers. Congress support had come under strain in Andhra Pradesh: post-reshuffle 11 out of 31 Congress MPs from that state are now ministers. In a similar vein, two states where state elections are due – Rajasthan and Gujarat – also saw their representation increase. In India, increasingly, the macro-level picture provides less insight than the politics of the states.

So, while the reshuffle may not have sent a coherent signal, its significance will be seen in whether it shifts political narratives on individual states.  

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Also read:

Indian Politics: Heating Up
Gareth Price, Expert Comment, September 2012 

Economic Reform in India: Expect Political Backlash
Gareth Price, Expert Comment, September 2012