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Council of newsmakers

Counting the 12 who count, and never mind some missing zeroes because a captain is ultimately as good as his team, whether his name is Mahi or Modi.

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Modi's cabinet

At a juncture when every Indian seems to have a definitive view of her own on Narendra Modi’s first year, please forgive me for attempting the also-ran thing by focusing on his ministers instead. Because a captain is ultimately as good as his team, whether his name is Mahi or Modi.

To make my job less complicated, I am confining myself to rating only 10 of his 66-strong Council of Ministers.These are the most important, visible and news-making 10, each one a member of the real Top Ten in his or her own right. The nature and importance of the portfolio held and seniority in the party are significant but not necessarily decisive factors.

So we are not assessing the performance of Ministers of Rural Development, Agriculture and Health, Birender Singh, Radha Mohan Singh and J.P. Nadda, which/who we know so little about. Again, because we are choosing only 10 (actually 12, with shared honours), we shall look at them in the ascending order of our ratings, from 1 to 10.

1. Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani

She is the youngest, most articulate, media-friendly member of this council, beating its average age of 57 by almost two decades. Just the right fit for a ministry with the primary responsibility of ensuring that India’s young and getting-younger population becomes a demographic dividend and not a disaster. In her 12 months, she has had many victories. She has demolished attempts to target her for her alleged lack of excessive formal education and disrespect for her certificate from holy Yale. It helps that in English or Hindi she is our second most fluent minister after the Prime Minister himself. Her victories include Delhi University Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh in the north of Delhi and Director of IIT R.K. Shevgaonkar in the south of Delhi. It’s a pity we do not have institutions of similar national repute in Delhi’s east and west. Eminent nuclear sci-entist and IIT Bombay Chairman Anil Kakodkar gently indicated she is changing set processes of selection of IIT heads. The chief of NCERT has gone, some more may follow. She promises to continue to make HRD controversial. In that sense, she is a wonderful prospect for becoming the Jairam Ramesh of the NDA, making a good cause controversial.

2. Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Uma Bharti

She has done nothing with her ministry, but gets a rating twice as high as Smriti Irani’s simply because she has done no real damage, or started new controversies. In fact, her restraint has been admirable in staying clear of the latest VHP campaign to ban rafting on the Ganga as scantily clad and wet-like in old Hindi movies-young folk indulge in obscene activities like hugging, grabbing each other and shrieking while hurtling downstream. So definitely a 2 upon 10.

3. Minority Affairs, Najma Heptullah

Though among the most experienced public figures in our politics, Najmaji, a latter-day saffronite, personifies her portfolio in more ways than one, being one of the four or five (depending on how you define minority) ministers from minorities in this cabinet, the lowest number ever. She has also done very little and mostly features here with what would have been pass marks in our old world schools, because she has stayed out of news, neither rising to comfort the minorities nor withdrawing any of the old measures: Haj subsidy, computerisation of madrasas, etc.

4. Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoS, independent charge), Dharmendra Pradhan

He was relatively unknown in what has been our most controversial ministry for two decades. He was given the job held under UPA by Veerappa Moily, Jaipal Reddy, Murli Deora and Mani Shankar Aiyar (in backwards order chronologically) for his reputation for incorruptibility and trustworthiness. He has entirely fulfilled his Prime Minister’s expectations on this score. The notorious hold of corporate lobbies and fixers on his ministry has been broken, many even face criminal cases now for corporate espionage. He has also helped his PM continue UPA’s reform of oil prices while smoothly moving LPG to direct benefit transfer, one of the Modi government’s biggest successes.

But the problem is, his approach to preventing corruption in petroleum is exactly like A.K. Antony’s in defence: wrap yourself in latex and yet do nothing, so nothing can go wrong. New investments, shale gas, fresh exploration have all been, if we may take some liberties, Antony-fied.

Also read: Why Rajnath Singh has emerged as a key Modi govt firefighter to address farmers’ issues


5. Home, Rajnath Singh; Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, Nitin Gadkari

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has mostly stayed away from the news in his ministry and we are not arguing with his view of Maharana Pratap-versus-Akbar history. But his leadership of our most political ministry has been shrewd. He has passed the test with the odd BJP-PDP alliance in J&K well so far. Delhi will now be his test.

Gadkari, the NDA government’s most amiable and willing communicator, would have scored a lot better than this if he had avoided making exaggerated claims on highway construction per day. The fact is, the UPA had made such a dog’s breakfast of the highways programme that it would take anybody more than a year just to start a proper clean-up. Most contractors have gone bankrupt and run away, many of genuine excuses of delays caused by non-availability of land or, simply, soil, sand and bricks since the UPA’s environment ministry had taken all that under its control. Gadkari would have been better off explaining his degree of difficulty first.

6. Power and Coal (MoS, independent charge), Piyush Goyal

A first division for the young minister as he has done a fine job of clearing up the policy mess in the coal sector. His performance on non-conventional energy generation, given the Prime Minister’s very ambitious plans, is creditable too. But why is India still caught in this ridiculous paradox where it often has “too much” power (electricity in the grid nobody wants to buy) and too many power cuts? That is because power economics in the country is broken, and no surprise that everybody involved in this business, from coal miners to producers to distributors and their bankers, is broke. This is a much larger issue of political economy and, to be fair, way beyond the minister’s station. But, along with Jayant Sinha, Nirmala Sitharaman, Kiren Rijiju and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, he forms a solid next-gen team for the BJP.

7. Defence, Manohar Parrikar; Railways, Suresh Prabhu

Parrikar’s been in the job for a relatively short while, but he has brought a freshness and informality to South Block. Also, after Antony’s eight-year silence it is wonderful to have a defence minister who is accessible and who speaks his mind on the record, and so what if the odd statement, like set a terrorist to catch a terrorist, causes controversy. He brings to his job his gift of fine education (IIT Bombay) and reputation for honesty. He has to, however, establish that there is more to this most important job than merely managing the fourth largest army in the world. From debates on Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to Utility of Force, the entire doctrine of defence and deterrence has evolved. India needs a Raksha Mantri who can master it.

Suresh Prabhu has been handpicked by Modi for his favourite ministry and he has taken to the wheel boldly. For the first time, the rail budget launched no new trains, reversing the old, populist nature of the ministry. His job is gigantic and he needs to be given time and patience.

Also read: Not more of Nirmala Sitharaman, Modi’s economy needs lateral entry. Like Jaishankar


8. Finance, Arun Jaitley

As the second most important man in the cabinet, Jaitley has served his PM well. His budget was forward-looking even though there will be quibbles with numbers, and there always will be. He is accessible to businessmen and the media (also as I&B minister), and communicates reassuringly as well as shrewdly. The reason he doesn’t make an even higher grade is that he hesitated to repeal the old retrospective taxation clause, and the inability to contain the MAT-FII issue has fuelled the fear of tax terror.

9. External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj

The quietest minister in a job that requires more talking than most. But she has done that at relevant forums, as an excellent foil for her Prime Minister’s new ideas on foreign policy. She has managed MEA well, projected a human face, even responding directly on social media to distress calls from Indians in Yemen, and ceded limelight to the Prime Minister with great dignity. That’s why in the latest India Today Group poll, she has been voted the best minister. For me, her finest hour was when she piloted the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh in Parliament taking all parties along.

10. Statistics (MoS, independent charge) and External Affairs (MoS), V.K. Singh

Retired General V.K. Singh is our undisputed topper for a simple reason even though we do not yet know much about any interesting finds he may have made in his independent charge. He was given two specific tasks: to evacuate stranded Indians from Yemen, which he performed with great diligence and commitment like a true soldier, and to keep the media off-balance, which he did with equal passion, and single-handedly! He is the only minister to have been praised publicly, and profusely, by the prime minister.

He contributed the very imaginative “P” word to our 140 character discourse, much as Vishal Bhardwaj brought in the “C” word. The rating for him is serious, and I underline that because it seems that even when I support him (as I did on his dignified, duty-bound visit to the Pakistan High Commission on their National Day), I am trolled by millions of his fans. Let’s see if 10/10 brings different results!

Also read: Modi’s chest-thumping ministers, and not Congress, are an irritant in dealing with China


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