If politics is the art of the possible, timing is equally important.
Timing was indeed behind Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s massive cabinet reshuffle on Sunday, which brought on board 17 new ministers. Battered by corruption charges, facing a severe credibility crisis and a dimming economic outlook, The reorganization ousted some of the more tainted ministers in his cabinet and replaced them with young faces that gave his team a fresh new look.
Among the incoming cabinet members is Oxford-educated Salman Khurshid, who will take over as Foreign Minister, replacing the lackluster and elderly S M Krishna.
Some of the young leaders—including Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Manish Tiwari, a dynamic spokesperson of the ruling Congress Party—were given portfolios with independent charges.
Many were surprised that Singh welcomed Shashi Tharoor back into government after the former high profile UN official was forced out of government two years ago after an alleged cricket scandal. A highly prolific writer and good communicator, Tharoor reinforces the government’s modern composition and pro-reform agenda.
The reshuffle is widely believed to be the Congress Party’s attempt to shed its negative image and reassert itself before crucial national elections in early 2014.
"It is a combination of youth, experience and relevance to the portfolios that have been entrusted to the ministers. The road ahead is full of challenges. But this is a team, which I hope will be able to meet those challenges,” noted the Prime Minister. Singh also said this would probably be the last reshuffle of the council of ministers before the 2014 general elections.
Political analysts say that if the cabinet reorganization revives the PM’s pro-reform reputation, it also bears the imprint of Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s rising star, who is widely believed to be positioning himself for a larger role in the party ahead of the general elections. The induction of new faces and the elevation of some of the young ministers is an attempt to prepare a future team for the party which is expected to fight the next elections under Gandhi’s leadership.
Political circles in New Delhi are also abuzz with speculation that the ruling party is preparing itself to overhaul its organizational structure in the coming weeks in order to give Rahul Gandhi a major role in the party, some believe as its working President.
These changes come at a time when the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on the ropes following reports that its President, Nitin Gadkari, was involved in shady financial dealings, thereby undercutting the party’s efforts to paint itself as an alternative to the corruption-ridden Congress Party.
Nonetheless, skeptics argue that the change in the cabinet has come too late as the government and party’s image is already tainted. They say that had it come a year earlier the reshuffle might have brought some political dividends. At this point, however, the ruling party’s standing has declined too sharply.
But the relaxed body language of Congress leaders during the swearing-in ceremony on Sunday signaled that they are not willing to concede defeat. Political commentators say that with a number of state elections scheduled over the next twelve months, the party cannot appear to be lackluster and demoralized. Many believe that a good showing in the regional elections will serve as a morale booster for the party before the crucial national elections in 2014.