Modi plays musical chairs

All the PM’s men With the recent expansion, the number of ministers in the Modi Cabinet has gone up to 66, Photo: PIB
All the PM’s men With the recent expansion, the number of ministers in the Modi Cabinet has gone up to 66. Photo: PIB

A week is a long time in politics and for the BJP four days were more than sufficient for the script to play itself out. After installing his protégé Amit Shah as BJP president in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi waited for the afterglow of the BJP’s spectacular win in Maharashtra and Haryana to set in before expanding his council of ministers. Over the past weekend, he rewarded political turncoats from the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal with ministerial berths, shuffled his pack of ministers by inducting new faces and put underperformers on notice all at once so that he achieved the following:

• get the political (read caste) arithmetic right before more states in the Hindi heartland go to polls;

• suitably reward the states that have stood by him and the BJP;

• swing the balance of power on Raisina Hill, which houses the North and South Blocks and, by extension, the Cabinet Committee on Security, decisively in his favour; and

• keep his detractors within the party and in the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, in good humour.

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Come Wednesday and the Modi-Shah duo carried forward the unscrupulous ease and clinical precision with which they executed the expansion of the Union Cabinet, to Mumbai, where they coerced the Shiv Sena into submission and co-opted the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for ensuring that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis easily won the trust vote in the Assembly. Incidentally, this was the same ncp that Modi had described as a “Naturally Corrupt Party” during the Maharashtra election campaign. No matter that in dumping its idea of being a party with a difference for realpolitik, the BJP lent itself to the charge of rank opportunism. In between expanding his Cabinet and marshalling his resources in
Maharashtra, Modi hosted former Kashmiri separatist leader Sajjad Lone while Shah, for his part, welcomed Congress leader Karan Singh’s younger son Ajatshatru Singh into the BJP fold as Modi and Shah plotted their “Mission 44” by triggering a realignment of forces in the run-up to the Assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir.

For the discerning, the events of those four days showcased the best and worst sides of a party riding high on a winning streak. From airlifting a Manohar Parrikar from Goa to head the defence ministry and resurrecting a Suresh Prabhu from political oblivion by giving him the plum portfolio of the railway ministry to (correctly) calling the Shiv Sena’s bluff of severing all ties with the BJP, Modi and Shah worked in perfect unison to outwit friends and foes alike. It was a hark back to 2005 when Modi expanded his council of ministers in Gujarat after winning the 2002 Assembly election. Then, as now, he relented and agreed to induct more ministers only after fortifying his position by getting a man of his choice (Vajubhai Vala) installed as BJP president in Gujarat. Then, as now, he gave ministerial berths to some who were not necessarily seen as being his camp followers in a bid to disarm his detractors within the party. And then, as now, he effected an expansion of his council of ministers only out of compulsion. If, then, it was BJP patriarch LK Advani who nudged Modi to induct more ministers into his Cabinet, it was an appreciation of Shah’s political compulsions ahead of key Assembly elections (Bihar in 2015, West Bengal in 2016 and Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in 2017, among others) coupled with his own desire to salvage what remains of his ambitious agenda of rationalising ministries in order to give to the people “minimum government, maximum governance” that forced Modi to undertake the exercise now.

ramshankar Sadhvi vijay-Sampla
The die is caste The induction of (from left) Ram Shankar Katheria, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Vijay Sampla indicates the BJP’s strategy to woo the lower castes

Spot the difference
Modi took care to allot or reallocate portfolios in keeping with an administrative logic that aims to reduce bureaucratic inertia and put economic reforms on the fast track. The induction of an IIT-alumnus Parrikar as the defence minister, a chartered accountant Prabhu as the railway minister or a Harvard-educated former investment banker Jayant Sinha as the minister of state for finance bears him out. However, for a prime minister who advised Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis to worry about how to serve the people rather than how to save his government, some of Modi’s own decisions smacked of double standards and tantamounted to putting survival over principle. This, when not so long ago, addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Modi had held forth on his agenda for an aspirational India. “Earlier there was a habit in our country to keep small groups happy. Divide in small groups and keep your vote bank intact. This has changed now. The thinking of the young generation of India has changed. The young generation of the country does not want to live in parts. The change has come due to the youth,” he said, explaining how he wanted to transcend caste and community considerations to create opportunities for a neo-middle class.

Modi had aroused expectations of ushering in a change in the way India would be governed but some of those hopes seem to have been belied by his succumbing to tokenism, caste considerations or the ubiquitous identity or vote-bank politics. Consequently, electoral considerations more than merit seem to have been at play here. Again, in trying to project that he has given a fair representation to Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in his council of ministers, Modi inducted certain persons with criminal cases, including that of attempted murder, registered against them. For instance, Ram Shankar Katheria has a case of attempted murder, among others, against him. Also, Modi perpetuated a stereotype that a Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was only fit for the portfolio of minority affairs. Having said that, Modi has yet managed to keep dynasts (such as Varun Gandhi, Anurag Thakur or Dushyant Singh) away from his Cabinet, but one would still be forgiven to ask, “So what’s the difference between him and others before him?” or “Can the bjp still claim to be a party with a difference?”

The induction of certain ministers such as Vijay Sampla from Punjab and Katheria from Uttar Pradesh, both Dalits, or Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, also from Uttar Pradesh, who hails from the most backward Nishad caste, indicated a BJP strategy to woo and to broaden its appeal among the Dalits, the backward classes and the intermediate castes. Clearly, the BJP has trained its guns on the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab by projecting Sampla as its Dalit face in the state. Sampla is the mp from Hoshiarpur, which falls in the Doaba region where the BSP claims to have a base. Sampla’s elevation should also be seen as an indication of the BJP’s desire to branch out on its own in Punjab. The BJP has already appointed Katheria, the minister of state in the human resource development ministry, as the party in-charge for Punjab.

Birender Singh, a Jat and a former Congressman from Haryana, was inducted in the Cabinet so that the Jat community did not feel alienated, especially after the BJP’s win in the recent Haryana Assembly election on account of the consolidation of the non-Jat vote. Sanwar Lal Jat, who belongs to the Jat community from Rajasthan, found a place in the Cabinet, too.

Giriraj_Singh Ram_Kripal_Yadav Rajiv-Pratap
Battleground Bihar (from left)Giriraj Singh, Ram Kripal Yadav and Rajiv Pratap Rudy could prove to be crucial players in the BJP’s plan to win over the Bihar electorate

Again, by giving ministerial berths to Giriraj Singh, a Bhumihar, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a Rajput who is considered close to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Ram Kripal Yadav, a Yadav, all hailing from Bihar, the BJP intended to convey the message that it valued their contributions and hopes to ride on the back of their support when elections are held in the state. Similarly, Babul Supriyo’s induction as the minister of state for urban development indicated the BJP’s plans to make a foray into West Bengal.

With the expansion of the council of ministers, now there are 66 ministers with 26 ministers of Cabinet rank (excluding Prime Minister Modi), 13 ministers of state (independent charge) and 26 ministers of state. The average age of the ministers is 59. (Earlier, there were 46 ministers in Modi’s Cabinet. The number dropped by one, to 45, after Gopinath Munde’s death.) Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have pride of place in the council of ministers with 13 and eight ministers, respectively, followed by Maharashtra (six); Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (five each); Karnataka (four); Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan (three each); Goa, Jharkhand and Punjab (two each); and Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Telangana and Delhi (one each.) The states that went unrepresented were Kerala, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. If it should be of any consolation to the northeastern states, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (or doner) has been placed under the independent charge of Jitendra Singh, who is a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office. Although one more woman (Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti) was inducted into the council of ministers with a minister of state rank, the percentage of women as a whole in the Cabinet dropped from 26 percent to 22 percent and in the entire council of ministers from 15 percent to 12 percent.

An essay in comprehension
Unwittingly, Modi’s penchant for the unconventional failed to live up to its billing, at least insofar as the “historic change” that he had sought to introduce “in the formation of ministries” as a step towards “smart governance” was concerned. Before he was sworn in as prime minister on 26 May, a press release issued on his behalf had said, “For the first time, he adopted guiding principle of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ and also rationalisation with a commitment to bring a change in the work  culture and style of governance. It is a good beginning in transforming entity of assembled ministries to organic ministries. It will bring more coordination between different departments, will be more effective and bring a speed in process. The focus is on convergence in the activities of various ministries where one Cabinet minister will be heading a cluster of ministries who are working in complimentary sectors. Mr Modi is eventually aiming at smart governance where the top layers of government will be downsized and there would be expansion at the grassroot level” (SIC).

Accordingly, one saw certain key ministries bring grouped together and placed under select ministers but it was dictated more by personalities than processes. Consequently, Arun Jaitley was given the twin (and disparate) portfolios of finance and defence, Ravi Shankar Prasad got law and telecommunications and Prakash Javadekar came to head the ministries of environment and information and broadcasting. To use an analogy, a chess player would find it difficult to advance in a game if his repertoire of openings did not evolve as the game progressed; similarly, Modi, much to his dismay, found himself saddled with a Cabinet that did not quite shape up, or performed, the way he would have liked, leaving him with little choice but to either make the necessary corrections or go back to the drawing board.

Another innovative idea, that of bifurcating the Ministry of External Affairs in order to have a dedicated department dealing with foreign trade and commerce, which Modi himself had flagged in 2013, seems to have fallen by the wayside. Among some of his other ideas that have not seen the light of day are deputing officers from the states to Indian missions abroad and designating a partner country for every state of the Indian Union depending on geographical contiguity or economic linkages.

Will Prabhu bring railways on track?

Photo: PIB

Sadananda Gowda’s loss was Suresh Prabhu’s gain. Gowda was one of two prominent casualties of the Cabinet
expansion, the other being Dr Harsh Vardhan. While Gowda was eased out from the railway ministry and moved to the law ministry, Vardhan, who saw his health portfolio being taken away from him and given to JP Nadda, was put in charge of the science and technology ministry.

Prabhu (above) has the unenviable task of ushering in much-needed reforms in the railway ministry. His challenge will be to succeed where Gowda failed, namely, implement Modi’s reforms agenda by drawing up a roadmap for attracting FDI in this sector and make the railways operationally efficient.

Safety and customer service are Prabhu’s other immediate priorities. “The prime minister has decided that the condition of railways has to change. Our two focus areas will be customer service and railway safety as passenger safety is increasingly becoming an area of concern,” he said soon after taking charge of the ministry. The railways was an integrating factor for the economy and “if we work in this direction, we can propel economic growth”, he added for good measure.

The 61-year-old’s induction into the Cabinet was as dramatic as it could get. Shunned by his own party, the Shiv Sena, over the past decade, Prabhu was appointed by the Modi government as the head of an advisory group constituted for integrated development of power, coal and renewable energy. He is also the prime minister’s sherpa for the Group of 20 (G20) summit. On the morning of 9 November, he quit the Shiv Sena to take up the membership of the BJP and was subsequently sworn in as a Cabinet minister.

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