Exactly who is in charge of the Indian cabinet?

The long awaited reshuffle of the Indian cabinet failed to produce the sweeping changes many had expected. Instead, minor amendments were made to the composition of the cabinet, while major changes were deferred till after the Bihar election. The prevailing view in the Indian media was that Lalu Prasad Yadav, the leader of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had prevented Singh from undertaking a complete overhaul of his cabinet. Yadav a major ally of the Congress party wanted RJD to be given a portfolio in any cabinet reshuffle but due to RJD’s preoccupation with the elections in Bihar, the Congress party decided to put back the reshuffle.

Whereas, Yadav’s objections maybe a factor in delaying a long due overhaul of the cabinet, it is not the principal reason for the postponement. The underlying cause is the ongoing struggle between Prime Minister Singh’s pro-American tendencies and Sonia Gandhi’s traditional English stance on foreign policy matters.

Lately, the tussle between the two stalwarts of the Congress party has come to ahead over the publication of the Volcker report and the subsequent resignation of Natwar Singh, India’s Foreign Minister.

The report written by former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker named Natwar Singh and the ruling Congress party benefiting illegally from the UN’s oil-for-food program for Iraq.

The publication of the report came at a time when differences over foreign policy matters between Manmohan Singh and some members of his cabinet were reaching a crescendo. One such issue of contention is Iran.

In July, Manmohan Singh moved to undermine his Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he suggested that LNG pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan was fraught with risks. At the IAEA meeting in October, Manmohan Singh overruled his Foreign Secretary Natwar Singh and voted for Iran to appear before the UN Security Council to answer allegations over its nuclear programme.

Ever since, Manmohan assumed the office of the Prime Minister, Natwar has been a thorn in his side. The root of Natwar’s antagonism can be traced back to the period when the Congress party was contesting the election with BJP in 2004. Natwar was tasked with the responsibility of writing the Congress party’s position on foreign policy issues. Most of the content was anti-American and was published as part of Congress party’s manifesto. A poignant reminder of Natwar’s opposition to American foreign policy came days before his resignation. In an interview with a television reporter Natwar disclosed that the Iraqi government lacked credibility and that the US government’s invasion of Iraq was illegitimate. In a separate interview, he said that India should reverse its position on Iran’s nuclear programme. Such remarks are not isolated but are part of a well rehearsed foreign policy stance which dates back to the days of Nehru. In an interview with Outlook magazine in June 2004, Natwar was asked about his views on India’s foreign policy matters. He responded, “The stamp that Jawaharlal Nehru had put, stays.”

Natwar was fully cognisant that his standpoint on a variety of world issues would attract the ire of US policy makers. Indeed, American officials rarely saw eye to eye with Natwar, so much so that even Tom Lantos India’s friend on the hill made disparaging remarks about him. Lantos said, “…but to have the Indian foreign minister with respect to his recent meeting with the Iranians to say they really don’t care what we think, shows the real denseness that occasionally very intelligent people are burdened with.” Given this backdrop to the publication of the report, the mention of Natwar appears highly susceptible. On the 19th of November, the Hindu reported that Natwar’s name was not on the original list which was published on January 5, 2005 by al Mada.

It appears that the Americans added Natwar Singh to the final version of the report hoping that the disclosure would help Manmohan Singh bolster his cabinet with additional pro-American ministers in the upcoming reshuffle. For the Volcker report to have any political impact on the Indian government, America relied upon Manmohan and his trusted courtiers as well as the BJP to move against the pro-British elements of the Congress party.

BJP immediately called for the Natwar’s resignation and quickly extended the call to demand the resignation of Sonia Gandhi the President of the Congress party. In this atmosphere, Manmohan issued statements that were less than supportive of Natwar and conveyed the impression that perhaps the allegations were true.

It was left to Sonia Gandhi to intervene and help Natwar Singh a loyal steward of the Congress party. In the ensuing meetings between Manmohan and Sonia, a compromise was agreed which meant that Natwar could continue as a minister in Singh’s cabinet, but without the portfolio of the external affairs minister, which the Prime Minister decided take upon himself. Assurances were also given that Natwar Singh could have his old job back if the allegation against him were proved to be untrue.

This latest episode clearly illustrates that Sonia Gandhi has always doubted Manmohan’s loyalty to the Gandhi faction that dominates the Congress party. Manmohan’s ascendancy to Prime Minister was a last minute concession by Gandhi to ward off American pressure against her. But before she turned down the Prime Minstership she managed to change the constitution of the Congress party to deprive the Prime Minister in this case Manmohan Singh from unilaterally changing the composition of the cabinet. By doing so, Gandhi restricted Singh’s ability to pursue policies that were deemed to be too pro-American.

The modification to the Congress party’s constitution meant that Manmohan Singh was continuously surrounded by people who owed their loyalty to the Ghandi family. This meant that America had to engineer an opportunity for Singh to stamp his authority over the cabinet which was appointed entirely by Sonia Gandhi in conjunction with senior members of her party.

The publication of the Volcker report was intended to provide Manmohan Singh with such an opportunity. And so far it has failed to produce the desired results. Natwar is still present in Manmohan’s cabinet and Sonia has successfully resisted a widespread reshuffle. Furthermore, the loss of Bihar, several officials plagued by scandals and the issue of Iran may work to America’s disadvantage and instead strengthen those voices that calling for Manmohan’s head.

Whoever falls first–” be it Sonia or Manmohan will have huge impact on Indian-American relations especially over Kashmir. Then it should come as no surprise as to why Musharraf a keen admirer of Manmohan is bending over backwards to ensure that a deal between the Pakistan and India over Kashmir is concluded quickly. Will Manmohan in his capacity as the foreign minister be able to strike a deal? The coming months will tell.