A day before the cabinet expansion and reshuffle Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a few journalists and in an informal chat put them at ease by mentioning that it would be a routine expansion and “not a change”. Indeed as it turned out the next morning, he had inducted 19 ministers, none of them at a senior level, and dropped about half a dozen of inconsequential junior ministers. There was no major surprise except that the total members of Modi ministry at 78 were almost equal to those of the previous government while Modi had initially promised: “maximum governance, minimum government” when he took over with a team of 45 in 2014.
However, the bombshell was reserved for the evening when the portfolios were announced. It was not just for the new ministers but affected others too which led to critics and political analysts reading between the lines. The clear signal that emanated from the reshuffle of portfolios was that Modi is in total control and is his own boss. It also emerged that he had undertaken an elaborate exercise and given much thought to it.
The headlines that hit the TV news channels that night and the newspapers the next morning pertained to the high profile Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani losing her portfolio for an insignificant Textile portfolio and one of the most influential ministers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, losing the Information and Broadcasting portfolio. None of the other biggies like the Home Minister, External Affairs Minister, Defence Minister or Railway Minister were touched.
Jaitley, who was recently involved in an ugly spat with the maverick new BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, retained the more important Finance portfolio. His supporters, however, were quick to convey that he was keen to shed the additional portfolio so as to concentrate on the most important finance ministry.
Irani, who had been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons and had been facing criticism for being rude and disrespectful to seniors, was proving an embarrassment for the Modi government. Significantly, she was divested of the portfolio despite having the backing of the RSS and despite working for its agenda to saffronise education. She has already put in place academicians and administrators with a clear bent towards Hindutva and also had plans to make major changes in syllabus and curriculum in schools and colleges. It was reported that her arrogance had annoyed some senior ministers as well as the BJP chief Amit Shah.
That the expansion and reshuffle were done keeping in mind the coming Assembly elections is evident. For the BJP the most crucial state is Uttar Pradesh which had given it 73 MPs. A victory in the UP assembly elections due early next year is crucial for its bid in 2019 to retain power at the Centre. Thus three of the new inductions are from the state. UP now has 16 ministers, the maximum from any state, with a clear aim at wooing the Dalit and OBC vote-bank.
Modi also provided three new slots for MPs from his home state Gujarat and one from Uttarakhand which is going for Assembly elections next year.
What is surprising, however, is that Modi has completely ignored Punjab where Assembly elections are due in February next. Neither did he take any additional member from Punjab nor did he reshuffle the portfolios of the existing ministers. Some analysts have pointed out that he had induced a Sikh, SS Ahluwalia with Punjab elections in mind. Their analysis is far from correct. Ahluwalia is hardly recognised as a Sikh leader in Punjab. He also does not belong to Punjab having been born and brought up in West Bengal. Later he had moved to Uttar Pradesh.
Perhaps the only concession he has made is not changing the portfolio of food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal despite reports that her performance was below par. It is learnt that Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had personally urged Modi to let Harsimrat retain her portfolio.
Yet another unexpected aspect of the reshuffle was retention of Vijay Sampla in the ministry. He was recently appointed the president of the Punjab unit of the BJP and there were speculations that he might be taken out of the ministry to concentrate on his new party post.
There were, however, surprises in store for the Union ministers from the neighbouring Haryana. Former Haryana Congress chief and union minister for rural development Birender Singh was divested of his portfolio and given a less significant Steel portfolio. It was stated that Modi was unhappy with the performance of his ministry.
The other change from Haryana was more significant. Rao Inderjit Singh, who was a minister of state for defence, was divested of his important portfolio under a cloud. It has subsequently come to light that he had been lobbying for a particular company dealing with arms and ammunition. Despite the army rejecting the bid of that company, Rao had been insisting that the company’s claim be reviewed. He has been moved to planning in the ministry of urban development.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway of the expansion and reshuffle of union ministry is the firm stamp of Modi and his trusted aide Amit Shah in the entire exercise. It is reported that a thorough appraisal of different ministries was undertaken prior to the changes incorporated in the union ministry. The reports said a team of officials had studied various aspects of each ministry and had submitted its report to Modi.
This, however, does not mean that Modi and Shah had completely ignored the RSS. There were reports that Amit Shah had met a senior RSS leader and discussed the changes with him before the final announcement of expansion and reshuffle. Modi is deeply rooted in RSS and there was no way he could ignore his parent organisation.
One irksome aspect of the recent exercise, which may have also been partly influenced by the RSS, is the lack of any action against those who had been vocal about not only the Hindutva agenda but had crossed limits in fanning communal passions.
At least two of these, who had doubtful credentials, have been retained. Mahesh Sharma from Western UP who was at the centre of communal polarisation, and Sanjeev Balyan, who was the man behind the “Kashmir in Kairana” hysteria, have been retained in the ministry.
Similarly, Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel, a Kurmi leader from eastern Uttar Pradesh, has been rewarded with a ministerial berth. Her induction is seen as BJP’s move to pre-empt rise of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, another Kurmi leader. She had recently come out with communal tweets and her speeches have been provocative. Her induction and retention of leaders like Mahesh Sharma and Balyan, has cast a shadow on what could otherwise have been a purely merit-based exercise.