Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has finally undertaken an expansion and reshuffling of his Cabinet. With this, the strength of the Union council of ministers goes up to 80 with 34 Cabinet ministers, seven Ministers of State with Independent Charge and 39 Ministers of State. Ending months of speculation, Dr Singh has also filled the foreign office slot vacated by K Natwar Singh in the wake of the Iraqi oil scam nearly a year ago by expectedly moving veteran leader Pranab Mukherjee from Defence to be the new Foreign Minister. However, the surprise of the expansion is the appointment of AK Antony, former Kerala Chief Minister to the prestigious Defence portfolio. That the incumbent ‘non-performing’ Home Minister Shivraj Patil has not been shifted out goes to show that the latest reshuffle of the Manmohan Singh ministry has been more of a political exercise and not one that is aimed to improve the overall governance of the country.
The one exception though, has been the equally unimpressive P.N Kyndiah as the Minister looking after the Development of North Eastern Region (DONER). He has rightly been removed and hopefully Mani Shankar Aiyar, his replacement, will be able to take a more professional approach in dealing even handedly with the development of the North Eastern region. There have been several complaints about the manner in which DONER has been run more as a fiefdom of the few vested interested individuals. It is not that the Northeastern states are suffering because of lack of funds. But even the money that is allocated is merrily siphoned off and roads and bridges sometimes remain on paper. The Minister alone cannot be blamed as it is equally the responsibility of the state government to utilize the funds judiciously. However, Mr Kyndiah has not been the best manager to lead DONER. Mr Aiyar with his knowledge of the northeast and with the tag of an outsider will be in a better position to lead this all important Ministry.
Coming to the Mr Pranab Mukherjee, there is no doubt that he did not want to give up the Defense Minister’s post, where he held a lot of power. But given the strategic requirement of guiding India’s external affairs with the outside world, Mr Mukherjee was the best person for the job. He will now be required to work on several important fronts: the emerging close ties with the US and the historic nuclear deal which deserves the outmost political attention; the twists and turns of relations with Pakistan needs a political heavyweight to oversee the peace process; democratization of the United Nations and coming to a mutual understanding with China (over the boundary dispute) to explore business opportunities are some of the key areas that will require the personal attention of the new Foreign Minister.