Every time word gets out that India Today is about to do its regular ranking of Union ministers, our phones start ringing and doors are thrown wide open all along the corridors of power. Brusque ministry briefings turn into elaborate multimedia presentations. To the ministers involved, our ranking has become an exercise in image management. To us it remains an index of performance.
Our 2001 election cover
This is our third ranking of the UPA ministers and the news has not got better. Two years in the government and the UPA still finds itself grappling with the contrarian pulls of coalition politics. Whether it is over reservation or the Naxal threat or security in Jammu & Kashmir, there is a distinct sense that every act of the Government is ruled not so much by a national agenda as by an electoral one.
The UPA came to power on the slogan of 'reforms with a human face.' The reforms have been grounded by the obstructionist Left lobby and the brutal reaction to the nationwide anti-reservation protests by students has not done much for the Government's human face either.
The Government's overall report card makes for grim reading. Of the 39 ministers ranked by our editors, 22 failed to muster even the pass mark. The labour and infrastructure ministries, vital to the reforms process, are amongst the worst performers. Old sectors like steel and coal have become restricted fiefdoms while new ones like retail are blocked by populist sloganeering. There are, of course, exceptions and our ranking recognises standout performances of the past year.
Perhaps the most promising story is that of Railway Minister Lalu Yadav whose 2005 ranking was 33 and who finds himself at No. 2 this year. Public perception of Lalu as the populist Bihari autocrat has now shifted to take into account the turnaround in the troublesome Railway ministry. Picking the right managers to run our trains has done the trick for Lalu. Praful Patel's Civil Aviation ministry finds itself at the top of the class because India has felt the direct impact of its policies. The growth of private airlines and jam-packed airports apart, open skies have changed the way we travel. For all the good news, the number of performing ministers is far too small. Instead of executive action, we get ideological confusion, instead of leadership, electoral compulsion.
Managing Editor Shankkar Aiyar who put together the cover story says, "Growth delivers the biggest vote bank. Instead of muddling around, the UPA simply needs to focus on bringing prosperity to more." All good governance requires teamwork and a strategic vision which everyone is committed to. Unfortunately, both are lacking in this government and there are only islands of performance. In such a situation, the dream of India becoming an economic powerhouse will remain just that.