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Modi govt rejig has nothing to do with real governance, it’s all about perception management

Former health minister Harsh Vardhan is just a fall guy. Look into Javadekar, Gangwar, Pokhriyal, Prasad exits, a similar pattern emerges. 

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The best one-liner on the latest Narendra Modi government ministry reshuffle was in a tweet by Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani: “Kharabi engine mein hai, aur badle dibbe ja rahe hain”. Coaches are being replaced, when the fault lies with the engine.

There is a deep truth here. Any shuffling of the Union Council of Ministers is bound to make news. More so, if the changeover is as large as this one. Such a move is bound to invite interpretations, criticisms and hopes. But all these readings hang on the assumption that the composition of the council of ministers matter, that it makes a difference to the quality of governance, that ministers actually administer. There is little to support this assumption in the case of the Modi government.

This is arguably the most PMO-driven government that the country has seen, perhaps more PM-centred than Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet during the Emergency. The overall direction is decided by the prime minister, domain-specific policies are framed by the PMO and every key decision is initiated from or vetted by the PM. The ministries have to carry out commands in a timely fashion. Frankly, the Secretary to the Ministry, a senior IAS officer, is more suited for this task than the minister. The job of a minister in these ministries is to ensure compliance and manage perceptions by sustaining the illusion of presiding over things, arranging timely photo-ops and sustaining vigorous propaganda. If you are looking for political direction, you should listen to the PM. If you are searching for policy shifts, watch out for reshuffle in the PMO. If there is anyone to be held responsible for the shoddy governance that India has witnessed of late, it should be the PM himself.

Performance. Governance. Policy. Skill sets. Efficiency. All this is verbiage, thrown around by this government’s spin-doctors. The carefully planted CVs of a few ministers are pure distractions. The latest cabinet rejig has nothing to do with real governance, it is all about perception management. It is futile to look for policy here, it is all about politics.

Also read: Reshuffle done, can Modi please deliver herd immunity – through vaccines

What the exits really say

Instead of focusing on the many new inclusions – we know little about their track record as ministers – it is best to focus on the exclusions and non-exclusions as these are hard decisions that tell us a lot about PM Modi’s intent behind the latest reshuffle.

A dispassionate listing of the biggest governance failures of Modi’s second government would bring up this list: mismanagement of the economy before, during and after the nationwide Covid lockdown, national security botch-up at the India-China border in Ladakh, burning down of the remaining bridges of communication with the Kashmir Valley, creation of mass panic among minorities on the issue of National Register of Citizens, ramming through the three farm laws and refusal to settle the resultant protest of the farmers, and, of course, the unbelievable abdication of responsibility during the second pandemic wave. If governance was the principal consideration behind the ministry rejig, Nirmala Sitharaman should have been shown the door, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Tomar should have seen a change in their portfolios, Amit Shah’s wings should have been clipped. None of this happened. All of them have retained their positions and portfolios.

Dr Harsh Vardhan is the only one to lose his job for reasons that can be ascribed to governance failure. But a close and fair examination of his case would show that Harsh Vardhan was a fall guy. All the key decisions or the lack of these – delay in testing of international passengers during the early days of second wave, non-tracing of infected patients, premature complacency after the first wave, non-preparation for the second wave, and the shabby vaccination policy and its tardy implementation – are directly attributable to the PMO. Dr Harsh Vardhan cannot be accused of overseeing the pandemic management. He was punished to save the PM’s image, punished more for his failure in covering up the debacle than for causing the calamity.

All other exits show a similar pattern. Prakash Javadekar faced the axe not for diluting the long-standing environmental safeguards or for the controversial Environment Impact Assessment rules, but perhaps for his failure to manage the media completely using his clout as the Information and Broadcasting Minister. Ravi Shankar Prasad may have been pushed out not for his arrogant and ham-handed ways of dealing with the judiciary and the IT giants, but perhaps for not bending these independent players enough. Santosh Gangwar was divested of his ministry not because he failed to protect the interests of the lakhs of migrant workers who walked back home during the lockdown, but perhaps because he dared to question the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh. Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ was shunted not because he lacked the capacity to handle the Ministry of Education or understand the New Education Policy 2020, but perhaps because he ran foul of the PMO over some key appointments and could not manage public perceptions on CBSE exams. It is all about political loyalty and perception management.

Also read: Modi cabinet reshuffle done, 43 new ministers take oath — Here is the full list of portfolios

Writings on the wall

The new inclusions are mainly about distribution of spoils to improve electoral prospects. Forget the few additions that the spin doctors would like to showcase. The massive inclusion, perhaps the biggest ever one-time inclusion in the Union government reshuffle, is mainly to reward coalition partners, new entrants to BJP’s social alliance and political regions that are key to the party’s future. It is ridiculous to talk about clean, anti-corruption image of the government after the inclusion of Narayan Rane. Reward to Jyotiraditya Scindia would surely pose questions about the BJP’s anti-dynasty stance. And the inclusion of several leaders like Sarbananda Sonowal would raise doubts about claims of efficiency. But much of this does not really matter. The ministers are there for lal batti.

Only the most credulous would expect any governance change from this cabinet reshuffle. Only the blind followers would buy excuses of talent deficit that the PM faces; the fact is that he has created this deficit by cleaning the party of all experienced leaders. Modi government 2.0 is INCOMPETENCE writ large. With this jumbo expansion, it is writ larger than before.

Yogendra Yadav is the national president of Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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