More incompetence is in evidence with the UPA — and more could be in store. A month after taking over the finance portfolio from Pranab Mukherjee and raising false hopes of fast-paced action on reforms and fiscal consolidation, Manmohan Singh will now let go of the ministry — apparently Sonia has come to a decision on this.
Clearly, Singh has not got his way with the ministry that earned him his laurels. His camp followers — from C Rangarajan to Montek Singh Ahluwalia — can now pack up and retire to their largely academic jobs as heads of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council and the Planning Commission respectively.
PM’s score as FM for a month: 0/10.
Media reports tell us that P Chidambaram will be back at the finance ministry, and his current job will go to Sushil Kumar Shinde, power minister. Nothing wrong in this, for, at the very least, he will be seen as a market-friendly face in North Block. But did Manmohan Singh have to waste more than one month replacing Mukherjee with Chidambaram — an obvious choice if ever there was one?
But Chidambaram, who presided over an unprecedented economic boom as FM from 2004-08, will leave behind a home ministry with unaddressed problems. The Naxal threat has not been reduced in any way. He has not got his way with the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, where the states have opposed him. And just when he is about to depart, we have an Assam that is burning in communal rage, brought on by the home ministry’s inability to prevent illegal immigration. The UPA is in denial about illegal immigration.
But overall Chidambaram did exude an image of being in control — even if circumstances went against him.
We can give him a score: 4/10.
Next, even as the Northern Grid collapsed on Monday and large parts of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal, Uttarakhand and Haryana experienced blackouts, we hear that Chidambaram’s replacement at the home ministry could be none other than Sushil Kumar Shinde, the power minister who has not exactly distinguished himself in the job in the whole of UPA-2.
If anything, energy policy has been UPA-2’s biggest failure, and Shinde as power minister has done all of nothing to make it a better place. His statement on Monday after the grid collapse did not leave anyone impressed with his competence. He said: “This type of a grid failure has happened after over 10 years. When such a power failure happened in 2001, power could be restored only by 4 pm on the next day. However, things have moved faster this time,” BusinessLine quoted Shinde as saying.
Sure, Mr Shinde. We should be happy that things were not worse. But that’s not exactly thanks to you. But overall, aren’t things worse in the power sector than in 2001?
Thanks to the coal shortage, power plants are operating sub-optimally. The country faces a 10 percent energy shortage, and large chunks of industrial demand are met through captive power sets. While metropolitan cities barely feel the shortage, smaller towns and rural areas experience 8-16 hour power cuts daily, especially in northern India. Now you know why grid collapses are waiting to happen — everyone draws more than he is entitled to.
The entire power distribution sector is in right royal mess. Accumulated losses add up to over Rs 2,00,000 crore, according to rating agency Crisil. A large chunk of these losses is the result of giving free or subsidised power to farmers, for which states are unable to provide payments from the budgets. Shinde has been unable to convince states to change course, and is now working on a package to reschedule these debts.
While no one should blame Shinde for all the failures of the state power distribution companies (discoms), the fact is Shinde did not show any kind of dynamism in the ministry whatsoever. He was just an old loyalist who went about doing business as usual.
The scary part is someone who is not known for exhibiting a great amount of competence in anything he did — at the power ministry, and earlier as CM of Maharashtra — is moving to the crucial home ministry, which is the most important ministry after finance at the centre. Giving him a promotion for failure to do his job would send the wrong message.
And the only reason for his elevation to home — if it happens — is that Sonia sees him as a loyalist. (He was Sonia Gandhi’s campaign manager in Amethi in the 1999 elections).
Chidambaram’s predecessor at home, Shivraj Patil, another flop home minister, was also there for the same reason — family loyalty. It took a 26/11 to oust him from the home ministry. One wonders what Shinde is going to achieve at home that Chidambaram could not. Sheila Dikshit, Delhi CM, whose name was also doing the rounds, might have been a better choice.