Sandeep Sahu

The first 24 hours after the swearing in went just fine. The first cabinet meeting – without portfolios allocated to the newly inducted ministers – took place within a couple of hours and approved the four major poll promises of the party. The gates of the Lok Seva Bhavan were opened for journalists - after over four years – the same evening. And all four gates of the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri were thrown open to the public the next morning – again after four years. Mohan Majhi, the new Chief Minister, did the rounds of the statues of Odia icons and paid floral tributes to them, in the company of his two deputies - Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo and Pravati Parida - the morning after. The optics were unexceptionable.

But having begun well, the new BJP government has faltered at the very first hurdle. First, the allocation of portfolios was delayed by three full days. And when it finally came, the most important portfolio – finance – was conspicuously missing in the list of departments allocated to ministers, requiring the release of a revised list by Raj Bhavan within an hour of the first. This was an eminently avoidable embarrassment, presumably caused by lack of homework and attention to detail.

But the bigger embarrassment for the government was the delay of three days in the allocation of portfolios, which has traditionally been done within a few hours of the swearing in. The inordinate delay deepened the impression in the minds of the people that the Mohan Majhi government will have no freedom to act on its own and will be ‘remote controlled’ by the ruling party’s central leadership. Some of the ministers unwittingly buttressed this impression by expressing gratitude to the party’s central leaders, apart from the CM, for giving them the responsibility of the department. Dispelling this impression that every major decision of the Majhi government will be taken – or vetted – in Delhi, therefore, should be the most immediate task for the new dispensation.

The second biggest challenge for the new government will be reining in the bureaucrats, who had been allowed – and even encouraged – to exceed their brief during the long running previous regime. The system that Naveen Patnaik had put in place, where bureaucrats call all the shots while elected representatives, including ministers, look on helplessly is not only untenable, but is completely against the spirit of democratic governance. A complete overhaul of the skewed bureaucrat-legislator(minister) equation thus should be one of the first tasks on the Majhi government’s agenda. But with experience of running a department at a premium in the new government (half the ministers are first time MLAs), this is easier said than done.

There is no real pattern that emerges from the distribution of portfolios on Saturday evening, suggesting that not much thought has gone into it. The CM has kept far too many departments, including the key ones of Home and Finance – with himself. With so many departments to look after, he would hardly get time to do what he needs to do most: give leadership to his team and to constantly monitor and review its performance. Some of the departments could perhaps have been allocated to senior leader Suresh Pujari, whose cupboard looks rather barren with only Revenue and Disaster Management. While he is a first time MLA, he has been in politics long enough to do justice to his ministerial duties. He was, after all, the top contender for the CM’s post before Mohan Majhi emerged out of the blue. It is, of course, possible that Majhi would shed some of the departments that he currently holds when the ministry is expanded and new ministers are inducted. Here again, the government could have avoided unnecessary speculation and intrigue by inducting all 22 ministers in one go.          

Every new government deserves – and usually gets – a ‘honeymoon period’ of a few months before judgments are passed on its performance. But thanks to a vicious, no-holds-barred campaign that has uprooted a 24-year old tree with deep roots in the soil, the Majhi government is unlikely to get such courtesy. In fact, the barbs against the new government had started flying thick and fast even before it had been sworn in – and even before Majhi had been named the Chief Minister. It was, of course, only to be expected for two reasons. First, the Naveen Patnaik government might have gone out of power; but those who helped sustain it for so long haven’t lost any of their power. Second, a newly ‘freed’ media will subject the Majhi government to greater – and much stricter – scrutiny than it has ever dared to do during the previous regime.

The Majhi government thus has its task cut out.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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