The first cabinet reshuffle by Narendra Modi, after 25 months into his second term as prime minister, has drawn mixed reactions. This is probably the first time in independent India that a prime minister has sought the resignation of a dozen ministers in one go, which includes six cabinet rank ministers and one minister of state. Only one of them has been rewarded with a gubernatorial post, while the rest were present at the swearing-in ceremony hoping to be accommodated elsewhere.
It is virtually a cleanup. Nobody is arguing that outgoing ministers were shown the door for their lack of performance. Every one of them was highly experienced and had a unique quality to hold their respective portfolios. The change of guard in the health ministry, though, does come as a surprise.
Dr Harsh Vardhan was one of the best performing ministers besides being a fine human being who has risen from the rank and file. One hopes the new incumbent, Mansukh Mandaviya, will reach out to him and seek his expertise on the subject. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could make use of Harsh Vardhan in Delhi, where the party unit actually needs someone of his ability. The former health minister, a qualified doctor, strongly resisted the multinational pharma lobby’s shenanigans in formalising Covid treatment while Ravi Shankar Prasad, the former electronics and information technology minister, tried his best to discipline the social media platforms. Yet, it is clear that Covid, social media and the issue of migrant labourers took a heavy toll on them.
All these issues impact the lives of ordinary citizens irrespective of caste, class or economic status. While the rich and the poor are equally affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the public perception that its handling by the Modi government has been poor will have an impact on the assembly elections scheduled next year. Being masters of electoral strategy, both Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah must have calculated the challenges they could face in the coming elections. The cabinet reshuffle, therefore, cannot be devoid of electoral compulsions.
BJP partners left behind
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has 27 parties in it, besides the BJP. All these parties account for 29 seats in the Lok Sabha and 17 seats in the Rajya Sabha. With the exit of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, the NDA has no major political party other than the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which lost its government in Tamil Nadu in the recent election, and the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Only three parties out of the 27 NDA partners have found a place in the Cabinet reshuffle, one each from the Janata Dal (United), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Apna Dal, whose member was clearly included keeping the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly election in mind.
Maharashtra leader Narayan Rane’s ministerial berth will surely create political ripples in his home state where his former parties, the Shiv Sena and the Congress, are in power. Rane, who rose from the position of a clerk to become Maharashtra’s chief minister, has enormous clout in the coastal (Konkan) region where the BJP is still weak. With Amit Shah now entrusted with additional charge of the new ministry of cooperatives, the state where politics is dominated by powerful cooperative movement leaders is likely to witness an upheaval.
The inclusion of the former Congress leader is a reward for shifting his loyalties — it is also a bait for fence-sitters. But doling out ministerial posts to “outsiders” without proper orientation in the party and its ideology could create fissures in the BJP, especially among those who have been loyal during difficult times without expecting any returns.
The overall impression of these seven years has been favourable to the government. But that in itself cannot guarantee electoral victory in the upcoming elections for the BJP. The government has to project a different image and urgently resolve pressing issues and problems faced by the people.
A cabinet of domain experts
Spotting the right talent in any given situation is the primary rule of governance. The preferred strategy of the prime minister has been to build a team of domain experts by including as many professionals as possible. It is also the first Union Cabinet with the highest number of women. These are important signals not only for electoral victories but also for creating the right atmosphere for economic revival, which includes foreign investments and increased manufacturing capabilities. There is an urgent need for the Modi government to create a “feel-good” factor even as the threat of a third wave of Covid looms over the horizon. The new Cabinet after the reshuffle reflects these sentiments.
Cabinet reshuffles are wittily compared to “shake well before use” instructions on medicine bottles. Though the contents remain the same, it adds to the utility of the medicine. The Cabinet would have looked much better had more talented and experienced party members (and there is no dearth of them in the BJP) been included. The current situation and the challenges on the economic, geopolitical, and security front are unprecedented and require out-of-the-box solutions, teamwork, and pooling of talent.
Only a clinical assessment of the performance of the newly inducted ministers at a later date will determine whether Modi’s cabinet reshuffle worked. In any case, by then, it will be time for yet another reshuffle.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)