In his 44 years in politics, defence minister Rajnath Singh must have been witness to many political skulduggeries. But Singh would have never imagined being at the receiving end of such machinations at this point in his career when his political credentials and seniority in the Bharatiya Janata Party – and within the government – would appear to be truly well established.
Early morning Thursday, Rajnath Singh knew he had been wronged when the Narendra Modi government put out its order announcing the new members of eight cabinet committees – the final decision-making body on matters related to parliamentary affairs, politics, investment, employment, economy, security, appointment, and accommodation. Rajnath Singh had been left out of the first four and was included, as No 2 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, only in two committees – economy and security.
Rajnath Singh, as per protocol, is the senior-most minister in the government after PM Modi. He was the second minister to take oath after the prime minister, and was also seated next to Modi at the ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the order Thursday morning gave away the sense that Rajnath Singh’s position and command under Modi’s rule may have been further reduced.
The sidelining of Rajnath Singh
As home minister, Rajnath Singh headed the cabinet committees on accommodation and parliamentary affairs, and was a member of the remaining four (investment and employment are the two new committees that have been included in Modi’s second cabinet). After the order created a lot of brouhahas all through the day Thursday, the Modi government amended it late at night and came out with a revised order with Rajnath Singh as member of six committees and as head of one of them – parliamentary affairs.
Rajnath Singh’s initial exclusion from six of the eight committees while not being the head of any of them, including the parliamentary affairs which he did during Modi’s first term, was not happenstance. It was a strong message to one of the most seasoned politicians for the BJP from the Hindi heartland: don’t expect an overarching role in the government that Arun Jaitley enjoyed in the last five years and which has been passed on for the next five to BJP president Amit Shah – who is part of all the eight cabinet committees.
Before the swearing-in, there were speculations that Rajnath Singh might be dropped from the cabinet altogether and instead made the speaker of Lok Sabha. In terms of holding command, Rajnath Singh’s previous tenure wasn’t that powerful either. Although he was the home minister, the portfolio had largely been turned into a ceremonial post, with Modi relying on Jaitley for all governance-related matters and on Amit Shah for those that concerned the party.
In the second term, with Jaitley deciding to sit out of the government owing to his health concerns, the power has narrowed down into the hands of Modi and Amit Shah. The informal arrangement has been made formal now. With Amit Shah also continuing in the role of BJP’s president, for the time being, his and Modi’s control in the government and the BJP is complete.
Absence of a warm equation in Modi era
Rajnath Singh started his political innings in 1975 when he was appointed the district president of Jana Sangh. He was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2000 to 2002, and twice held the post of president in the BJP.
During Modi’s first term, Rajnath Singh found himself battling political intrigues one after another. Soon after the government was formed in 2014, rumours began doing the rounds that Singh’s son Pankaj was indulging in misconduct and had been pulled up by Modi. At the time, Rajnath Singh had threatened to resign.
The BJP had to issue a statement denying the charges as baseless rumours.
Then, later on, Rajnath Singh was one of the several ministers in the government whose decisions to appoint personal secretaries of their choice were put on hold by PM Modi’s office.
For the next five years, the Modi-Shah duo has also formalised the generational change in the BJP by giving junior ministers like Nirmal Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan important responsibilities in the cabinet committees.
Although the years don’t look very promising, Rajnath Singh, now the defence minister, remains one of the few leaders from the Vajpayee-Advani era who continues to hold a top position in the Modi government.