The Cabinet reshuffle last week led to profuse but mostly vacuous analysis on TV. Many analysts claimed the reshuffle aimed to influence the 2014 parliamentary elections. Some opined that the coming state election in Uttar Pradesh was a major consideration: three ministers from that state had been given Cabinet rank. Many others expressed dismay that Manmohan Singh had missed an opportunity to put his house in order.
Now, a cabinet reshuffle creates much excitement among the Delhi chatterati. It can matter a lot to individual political factions in the Congress. It can also matter to business houses connected to this politician or that. But for voters as a whole, it is a symbolic exercise bereft of substance.
What matters for voters is government performance, not the list of supporting actors in a film scripted and directed by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The notion that Manmohan Singh determines portfolios betrays naiveté about the functioning of the Congress Party, which is a fiefdom of the Gandhi family. Manmohan Singh may formally be Prime Minister , but too often he resembles a regent in a feudal dynastic setup, keeping the throne warm until the young prince is ready to occupy it. Meanwhile, almost all key decisions are taken by the Queen Mother. Manmohan can take the lead in one or two proposals like the US nuclear deal, but Sonia has the final say on Cabinet appointments.
The vast majority of Indian voters lives in rural areas and knows very little about central ministries or ministers. Most have never met a central government official: the only government they know is the state government . So, major debates and controversies that shake New Delhi may be ignored almost completely in rural India. Only once in a while (as in the Bofors scandal or Kargil war) do central issues sway all-India elections.
This is dramatically illustrated by the huge controversy in New Delhi over economic reforms introduced in 1991. Many ideologues claimed that the 1996 election would be a referendum on economic reforms. But psephologist Yogendra Yadav tested this claim through a survey asking voters if they were aware of any change in economic policy whatsoever. Eighty per cent said they were unaware of any change at all!
Most ideological debates in Delhi (such as the one over civilian nuclear cooperation with the US) have no echo in rural India. Electoral politics is overwhelmingly local. This was demonstrated tellingly in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress won a notable victory and registered unexpected gains in many states, yet won only 9 out of 72 seats in three states where opposition chief ministers had a good record of growth and development—Bihar , Orissa and Chhattisgarh . Local issues in these states dwarfed national ones.
After the latest Cabinet reshuffle, TV analysts hypothesized that Manmohan Singh had penalized non-performers , and this would put voters in a happier mood. Really? If the only penalty for non-performance is to get another portfolio—sometimes with a higher Cabinet rank—will voters think their problems are over?
High food prices constitute the most important issue today. But, can simply hiving off the food department from Sharad Pawar to a largely unknown new face mollify disgruntled voters? Such symbolic change is irrelevant : what matters is whether food prices come down or not.
The Commonwealth Games are burned into public consciousness as a major scam and waste of government funds. Will shifting sports minister MS Gill to statistics and programme implementation mollify voters, or create a new brand image for Congress?
The telecom scam has done more than anything else to damage the credibility of the government. Since the main perpetrator was a DMK minister (A Raja), the scam could be clinch defeat for the DMK-Congress combine in the coming Tamil Nadu assembly election. Can this huge image problem be resolved just by entrusting Kapil Sibal with the telecom portfolio? When Sibal declares that no money was lost at all in the scam, will it convince voters or prove to them that Congress is more intent in covering up corruption than tackling it?
State elections are due in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. The Congress needs a new strategy to challenge Mayawati in the state. But can the promotion of three lightweights to Cabinet rank in New Delhi be called strategy? No, it is one more example of meaningless symbolism parading as policy.
The Congress has plenty of time and opportunity to get re-elected in 2014, and to wrest some state governments from opposition parties. But that requires a record of solid achievement. Victory cannot be based on trying to explain away bad behaviour with Cabinet reshuffles, or on occasional dismissal of a Raja here or an Ashok Chavan there.