Thats what the CCS has been reduced to: the top brass of this govt,each one looking over his shoulder
Millions of words of punditry have already been written on what exactly ails UPA 2. So it is tough to discover any new viruses there. But you can underline some of the more damaging aspects of this ailment. One such is the absence of a strong core to this cabinet which,in turn,has led to lack of cohesion.
Given the way the cabinet system has evolved in India,the core of decision-making is the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Over the years,particularly since the arrival of coalitions,the CCS has acquired primacy over the CCPA (Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs),which is now a weak caricature of itself. Ministers of home,defence,finance and external affairs,besides indeed the prime minister,automatically qualify to be members of the all-powerful CCS,which is also the centre of gravity of the cabinet.
How does the UPAs CCS look? Its most experienced and politically influential member,Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee,is distracted by a hundred GoMs and a dozen mutinies. Its most clear-headed and efficient member,P. Chidambaram,has been battling demons of his own,both within his party and outside. The only silver lining for him now is that he has become such a favourite dart-board of the RSS that finally even his party has been forced to rise in his defence. Defence Minister A.K. Antony cuts a seriously hapless figure,scurrying about,answering charges of indecision and worse from his own general. S.M. Krishna,external affairs minister,doesnt really have much of a voice or weight. And the prime minister,at the best of times,is a consensus,ruffle-no-feathers,what-is-not-acceptable-to-all-can-wait-for-another-day man. Everybody,from the corporate sector to the armed forces,complains of paralysis in governance. This is where it begins.
This is the most distracted cabinet core group in a very long time. Each member is waiting for a date that will decide his own future. Pranab Mukherjee is looking at some date in a few weeks when 10 Janpath announces its nominee for Rashtrapati Bhavan. Chidambaram is looking at July 17,the next date for the Supreme Court to examine one of the more determined bids to make some 2G mud stick to him. Antony,if at all,has an earlier,and a more fixed date: May 31,when General V.K. Singh is scheduled to retire,and the return of peace time to defence headquarters. The prime minister seems to be caught in the longest wait,till May 2014. Only Krishna carries on with his timeless nonchalance,waiting for the next consular crisis (and opportunity) when some TV channel gets neurotic about the hassles of some Indian expatriate,preferably in a rich,heartless,white country. This waiting-room syndrome then travels down to the entire cabinet.
Since we Indians understand any complex issue best when explained in cricketing terms,it is useful to recall a brilliant line often spoken by Vizzy (Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram,India captain in 1936,but really more a cricket-lover than player who unfortunately became known as one of our most boring radio commentators). To save a bad Test match,he would say,teams need batsmen who can bat against the clock. But India is so weak,they need batsmen who can bat against the calendar. This is what the most important members of this cabinet have been reduced to. Taking the cue,other ministers are also learning to play for time.
This is further compounded by the terrible lack of political ground-work which is blocking even the decisions that do get taken. The CCS,for example,took a bold decision on settling the Teesta issue with Bangladesh. But it ran into trouble at the CCPA with the TMCs Dinesh Trivedi. Would this have happened if adequate political preparation had been done? How weak does a cabinet look when a decision taken by its highest body presumably after due deliberation and negotiation with allies has to be put in abeyance on the eve of the prime ministers visit to Bangladesh? It was a deliberate and very wise decision of the prime minister to keep the CCS to just the Congress ministers in the hope that it will lead to better cohesion and discipline. But for it to work,you need brilliant political managers to keep your allies in good humour,even as they are kept outside the tent.
How can the UPA fix this? First of all,it has to forget the idea that it can continue with the same CCS for two full government terms. Politics,governance,life,nothing can be at a standstill for 10 years. It has to induct more talent,and give it greater political weight. For any student of Indian politics,it is fascinating that the UPA has managed to govern for eight years without a member from the Hindi heartland in the CCS,or in fact,in its senior counsel. Further,two of the five CCS members (PM and Krishna) are not even active politicians. That is why it has to look at what political/administrative talent is available,and bring it in. Digvijaya Singh and Sheila Dikshit are two candidates. Ghulam Nabi Azads political skills and network also need to be put to better use so he can avoid wandering aimlessly into any more windmills after trying to stop Indian doctors from settling in America.
Finally,the time may have come for a second look at the old policy of keeping all allies out of the CCS. We know the Congress cannot stand him,maybe only because he is their least troublesome ally. But Sharad Pawar has the experience,knowledge,weight,and most importantly,political capital that transcends party lines. He can be put to better use. In any case,the UPA has to start something imaginative if disruptive at the top. That is the only way to bring this government back to life,whether an opening is provided by Pranab Mukherjees move to Rashtrapati Bhavan or not. This status quo must be broken,or that most distant date of all,May 2014,may arrive earlier than you imagine.