The Met Office predicted a dust storm and thundershowers in the capital on 26 May. But only after 8 pm, the forecast said. Halfway through the oathtaking ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the heat got to Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Last week, he anxiously tweeted about not being invited to the Narendra Modi show. On the muggy Monday evening, he wished for winter elections so that such open-air gala could be more tolerable, only to be snubbed by Kiran Bedi that the weather was pretty pleasant in Delhi, thank you.
Not everyone rattled out the oath as swiftly as Sushma Swaraj, who appeared to know it by heart. So, the president decided to speed things up by asking his secretary Omita Paul not to wait for every minister to finish signing the registers before calling the next one to take oath. “You announce. They will take time,” he prompted. It helped. The ceremony was over by 7.30 pm, well within the Met deadline. But the elements held even afterwards.
Every now and then, chants of “Jai Sri Ram” broke the protocol. For a change, superstars and celebrities were ushered to the back rows. A restless Salman Khan decided to put on his shades. Sunil Gavaskar stared motionless. Smriti Irani flaunted gorgeous lotus prints on her saree. Sadhvi Ritambhara kept smiling to herself and sang along as the brass band played the national anthem. The two Ambanis kept their distance. And Rahul Gandhi was estranged from his mother who sat next to former president Pratibha Patil in the front row.
By the time all 46 ministers took oath in the name of god, with 3,000 guests in attendance and millions watching live on television, the Indian polity had taken a pivotal turn. In his stately avatar, the new prime minister decided to swap his trademark Modi kurta for a more dapper affair. But that was a minor recalibration, given his masterstrokes of moves to pull off a grand coronation ceremony, with the attendance of SAARC neighbours — a celebration of democracy if you will — to appoint a matter-of-fact Cabinet that bore his signature all the way.
Through the election campaign, Modi the contender single-handedly changed the tenor of Indian politics. Now, it was the turn of Modi the prime minister to redefine governance.
Surprise or Not
Nobody expected Modi to invite SAARC leaders, least of all Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his oath-taking ceremony. Only last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned down Sharif’s invitation to attend his swearing-in in Islamabad. The year before that, Singh drew flak from the BJP for extending so much as a lunch invitation to outgoing Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari who was in India to visit Ajmer Sharif. The feelings of the Sangh, the Sena and the hardliners in the BJP have not changed since. But Modi made it clear he would be his own man.
Disregarding opposition from friend J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and ally MDMK to inviting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the saffron resistance to hosting Sharif, Modi flaunted his numerical strength in Parliament to bring the entire SAARC leadership together in New Delhi at less than a week’s notice. Travelling abroad, Sheikh Hasina could not make it but sent the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. Modi has promised to visit Dhaka soon and it looks like Mamata Banerjee can no longer veto a Teesta water-sharing treaty.
If Modi’s ingenious diplomatic coup of sorts surprised many, there was more in store for the BJP’s three allies. Irrespective of the size of their parliamentary parties, the TDP, Shiv Sena and the LJP got one berth each. If such token representation was not enough, Modi irked Sena’s Anant Geete with the “unimportant portfolio” of heavy industries. It is likely that both the TDP and the Sena will get at least one berth each when Modi expands his Cabinet during the Budget session but an immediate reshuffle to placate Geete may not be on the cards.
Modi also surprised many in his own party by ignoring a few states where the BJP trounced its opponents in the recent polls. Rajasthan staged a clean sweep of 25 seats but got only one minister in Nihal Chand. Similarly, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh found one berth each, while a resurgent Bengal BJP went unrewarded. Unmistakably, Modi favoured key states that are heading for Assembly polls. Six ministers were picked from Maharashtra due for polls later this year. Next in line Bihar (2015) got five ministers and the lion’s share of nine went to the all-important Uttar Pradesh (2017).
However, Modi’s choice of ministers was not unexpected. He did not want the old guard cramming his style. So, customary visits and placatory calls made, he gently did away with the dilemma of having to “find slots” for an LK Advani and an MM Joshi. Not a coincidence that Advani smiled the broadest on Monday evening when he met the Congress president and Joshi did not bother to socialise at all.
Like he singled out Amit Shah as his most trusted colleague in Gujarat, Modi announced his confidence in Arun Jaitley by trusting the finance minister with the defence portfolio for the time being. While Rajnath Singh’s home portfolio makes him the No. 2 in the Cabinet, the formal hierarchy will become clear once Modi leaves on his first foreign tour.
From trust to loyalty, Modi handed out berths to keen backers who delivered the goods in his quest for 272-plus. If Najma Heptullah, former deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and the only Muslim in the Modi Cabinet, got her due for ditching the Congress to join the BJP weeks after the party lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election, Piyush Goyal, Prakash Javadekar and Nirmala Sitharaman were rewarded for defending Modi on news channels night after night. Dharmendra Pradhan got his due for reaping a rich harvest of MPs in Bihar.
With his pick for the HRD ministry, Modi sent the right signals to the RSS. As the HRD minister in the Vajpayee government, Joshi reconstituted academic councils with saffron scholars and expunged books written by Left historians from the syllabi. The appointment of young Smriti Irani of Tulsi fame may allow enough room for more such manoeuving.
I, Narendra Damodardas Modi
With his ministers flanking him, Modi made it clear on the first day of office that he would be in charge of all important issues and the “most critical policy issues” would be decided by the PM and/or the FM.
That Modi the super-CM had arrived in Delhi was already evident in the selection of junior ministers for key economic ministries — Goyal (power and coal), Sitharaman (commerce), Pradhan (oil and gas) and Javadekar (environment) — that Modi the super-PM wants to run himself.
As expected, Modi clubbed certain complementary sectors under nodal ministers, evidently to streamline operations. Corporate affairs and finance went to Jaitley. External affairs and overseas Indian affairs were combined under Swaraj. Venkaiah Naidu took charge of urban development, housing and poverty alleviation. Gopinath Munde got rural development, Panchayati Raj and drinking water and sanitation. Road transport and highways and shipping (but not railways or even civil aviation) were brought together under Nitin Gadkari. Goyal got power, coal and renewable energy.
But other combinations, such as finance and defence or I&B and environment, defied logic. It is possible that, as Jaitley suggested on 27 May, Modi is still looking for a suitable defence minister. But it is inexplicable why the environment portfolio was not entrusted to either Sena’s Suresh Prabhu or the BJP’s Maneka Gandhi when both have the experience of handling the ministry under Vajpayee.
Perhaps, Modi wants to control these two ministries as well without being seen to be doing so. Inducting a full-time defence minister would have meant having another heavyweight (and another sceptic alongside Swaraj) in the Cabinet Committee on Security. With the trusted Jaitley in charge, Modi gets to run the MoD by proxy until he makes up his mind on a worthy incumbent.
The motives are clearer in the case of Paryavaran Bhavan. To attract investment, the industry is betting on Modi to expedite green clearances and push through pending projects worth $7 billion. To deliver, the new government will have to overcome a number of legal hurdles in the green ministry for which the PMO needs unhindered control.
In the run-up to the polls, Javadekar attacked the UPA in February for blocking growth and going back to the days of licence-permit raj by delaying green clearances, a charge Manmohan Singh himself laid against his own government. Soon after taking oath, the new green minister told ANI that “poverty is the biggest disaster” and “India needs a window for growth” because there is no contradiction between environmental protection and development.
The tribal affairs ministry, the other impediment to summary clearance of projects, has been assigned to Jual Oram, who served in the ministry (1999-2004) when it was created by the Vajpayee government. A leader of the tribal resistance against the proposed mining of Khandadhar hills by POSCO in his Sundergarh constituency, Oram was quoted as saying that mining should be allowed only when it was in the interest of the tribals. But it remains to be seen if such critical decisions remain his or shift to the PMO.
Less is More
Pushing “minimum government”, is Modi piling too much on his plate? Will the extent of much-promised maximum governance eventually depend on his ability to push himself to superhuman levels of stamina and efficiency? To Modi’s credit, he ran the state of Gujarat pretty much single-handedly. But India is not as homogenous or developed. Its size, diversity and challenge are likely to stretch even a workaholic like Modi and will require a range of inputs and approaches that may be beyond an over-centralised albeit super-efficient task force.
Of course, Modi was backed by a solid team of bureaucrats and technocrats in Gujarat and some of them will follow him to Delhi. Additionally, the new prime minister has been busy screening talent for his central crack team. No-nonsense Nripendra Misra and super sleuth Ajit Doval have already been singled out for the posts of principal secretary and national security adviser (NSA), respectively. In fact, Modi was closeted with both even before his swearing-in and Doval briefed him on the key issues for the meetings with SAARC leaders, including the most crucial one with Sharif.
A former chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Mishra is known in IAS circles for his work ethic and integrity. He will be Modi’s point person for key policy implementation. Doval is only the second NSA, after MK Narayanan, with an intelligence background as the rest of his predecessors were in the Foreign Service. He will be integral to Modi’s fight against both internal and external terrorism.
Two of Modi’s most trusted officers, Bharat Lal and Arvind K Sharma, have also been inducted in the PMO. Gujarat’s Resident Commissioner, Lal has been successfully liaisoning for Modi in Delhi’s power corridors for some time. Sharma, a 1988-batch IAS officer, apparently helped Modi project his business-friendly image, particularly through the Vibrant Gujarat summits, and also “handled” BJP MLAs in Gujarat.
Yet, it will not be easy for the talent-packed super-PMO to run the government and the country all on its own. As Modi eases into his new role, his challenge will be to open up and delegate decision-making powers to ministers other than a Jaitley or a Rajnath. Participatory governance will make his job easier and also prove those who have misgivings about his totalitarian tendencies wrong.
Some picked up the early signs as soon as the coronation was over. “No selfies on stage! Remarkable restraint,” tweeted junior Abdullah, with a smiley, moments after all the prime minister’s men and women lined up for a photo op at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Who would have thought Modi couldn’t be happy staying in the big picture while others clicked?
Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist