India's Respected Environment Minister Moves On

Two years of radical reforms aimed at protecting India’s depleted environment and changing the balance between rampant economic growth and sustainable development came to an end Tuesday when Jairam Ramesh, the Minister for Environment and Forests since May 2009, was moved to another ministry in a government reshuffle.

This is a victory for businessmen and other government ministries that have objected to Ramesh’s often brash, but nevertheless well-intentioned, blocking of mining, infrastructure and other projects that breached hitherto largely ignored regulations.

He has put the environment firmly on India’s political agenda and has begun to clean up a previously highly corrupt ministry , setting up new environmental and conservation institutions, and transforming India’s impact on international climate change negotiations. In recent weeks, he has compromised on environmental approvals, particularly over coal mining projects, but that does not seem to have been enough to save him, with his often-provocative manner, from being moved.

His successor at environment and forests is Jayanthi Natarajan, who is an able Congress Party spokesperson. Though sometimes combative in television debates, she is expected be far less confrontational and more pragmatic than Ramesh. She will probably be less reform- minded and will have to strike a balance between the often-conflicting demands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s desire for projects that boost economic growth, and the more environment-oriented Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and the coalition.

Ramesh has been appointed Minister for Rural Development and has been compensated for the move by being promoted to the cabinet – previously he was a minister of state. He can also console himself with the thought that he said when he first took the job that he would want to move on after two years.

Rural development is not usually a high profile post, but it is a high priority for Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Gandhi dynasty and who is seen as a future prime minister, as well as for his mother, Sonia Gandhi. Ramesh is thought to be close to them and can be expected to adopt a high profile and energetic approach to the needs of the rural poor.

That includes reforming often-wasteful and hugely expensive rural employment job and other aid schemes – his ministry has a massive Rs87,800 crore ($19.5bn – £12.2bn) budget this year. He will also be involved in new controversial legislation on the use of land for industrial purposes – the issue that led to his clashes with companies at the Environment Ministry – and has said he intends to focus on developing areas controlled by Naxalite rebels.

Lackluster reshuffle

Today’s otherwise rather lackluster reshuffle follows an earlier one in January. It was partially necessitated by two ministers being sacked from the cabinet over a long-running telecoms license scandal, and two others indicating they wanted to leave their jobs.

Notable among the appointments are Salman Khursheed, a leading Congress politician as Law and Justice Minister, replacing M.Veerappa Moily who was not a success. Dinesh Trivedi, an experienced politician from the Trinamool Congress takes over at Railways, succeeding Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee who became chief minister of West Bengal in May. Two fatal rail crashes earlier this week underlined the need for improved top-level management of the railways.

The reshuffle has come at a time when the government seems to have lost its way amid a series of corruption scandals and poor administration. As I wrote last week, India’s reputation for relatively good top political leadership and governance, together with gradual economic reforms and sustained economic growth, has taken a beating under the dual leadership of the rarely-seen Sonia Gandhi and the reticent Manmohan Singh.

The media has been preoccupied over the past few days about whether what it calls the “top four” in the government would be changed, sparked partly by Singh promising a significant reshuffle after the last one in January.

It had become clear however that there was virtually no prospect of any move for Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is the government’s leading political manager, nor Defense Minister A.K.Antony, nor Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram who, though controversial, has transformed his ministry. Gaffe-prone foreign minister S.M.Krishna also looked safe, probably because it would be difficult to find a senior-enough replacement who would bow to the wishes of Manmohan Singh in the one area where the prime minister can make a personal mark.

Problems are at the top

But this focus on the “big four” ignores the point that they are part of a “big six” and the government’s real top-level problems stem from the other two, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

When Gandhi refused the prime ministership after the 2004 general election and put Singh in the job while retaining the leadership of the Congress Party and the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, it looked as if a good balance had been struck between dynasty and administration.

But the double act is no longer working well. Singh is taking the flak for presiding over a corrupt government with many poor-performing ministers. He is however severely limited in what he can do both by the constraints of Sonia Gandhi being in overall charge and by the demands of coalition parties that have little concern for national policies. He has little direct authority over ministers, especially those from coalition partners – a railways minister of state from the Trinamool Congress refused his instruction to visit one of the two crash sites.

The prime minister is also limited in what he can say publicly because of how it might be misconstrued by Gandhi and her courtiers, and in any case, he is not a good public performer.

Sonia Gandhi should therefore logically step forward and become the public front of the government, defending its policies and providing national leadership. But she is not willing to do this and remains, for the most part, hidden behind the walls of her central Delhi house. Her son and heir, Rahul Gandhi, makes forays into the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are crucial assembly polls early next year, but has not developed a sustained public profile.

Arguably, therefore, the government’s image will not improve overall until either Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh move on, and there is no prospect of that happening.

(John Elliott blogs at Riding the Elephant, which appears elsewhere on this page.)