About four years ago, Arun Jaitley, then finance minister, had invited some journalists home for an informal interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It wasn’t for reporting, of course. The meeting lasted for well over two hours. After Jaitley announced its end and the PM walked out, I followed him outside. “Sir, (cabinet) reshuffle hoga, nahin hoga, itna toh bata dijiye (At least tell me if the cabinet will be reshuffled?),” I pleaded, wanting him to drop a hint about a possible revamp of his ministerial team. The Prime Minister gave a genial smile, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Aap chinta mat karo. Jis din sochunga, usee din kar doonga (Don’t worry. The day I think about it, I will do it that very day).” It was a teaser of a reply.
But we reporters have our (convenient) ways of interpreting a politician’s comment. Mine was: ‘Well, it seems he hasn’t thought about reshuffling his team yet.’ But, what if the PM ‘thinks’ about it the next morning and carries out the reshuffle the same day! That was a disturbing thought. Maybe, but my interpretation was convenient. It was imaginative enough to convince my then editor. Or so I thought.
Every time there is fresh speculation about a cabinet reshuffle, I remember PM Modi’s jis-din-sochunga quip. Assembly elections are over. PM Modi will complete two years of his second term in office on 30 May. One cabinet minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, and one junior minister, Suresh Angadi, have died and two cabinet ministers — Arvind Sawant and Harsimrat Kaur Badal — have resigned in these two years. Yet, the PM hasn’t started ‘thinking’ of a cabinet reshuffle and expansion, it seems.
Options galore for a new team
In his first term, Modi had expanded his council of ministers within six months in office — from 45 to 66. In July 2016, barely a couple of months after the second anniversary of his government, Modi carried out another cabinet reshuffle, expanding the strength of his council of ministers to 78. He revamped his team again a year later.
On 30 May 2019, Modi had taken oath of office along with 57 ministers; his team’s strength is down to 53 today.
So, what’s holding back the Prime Minister from carrying out a cabinet reshuffle in his second term? Why hasn’t he started ‘thinking’ about it? It’s certainly not about his ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ slogan. After his second cabinet reshuffle, Modi’s 78-member team was as big as Dr Manmohan Singh’s after the latter’s last cabinet reshuffle in 2012. It’s also not about a poor bench strength, which is a fact but there are some brilliant options available. Say, for instance, Jyotiraditya Scindia. His efficiency and innovative approach as a minister had often earned him appreciation from Manmohan Singh. Scindia would be a bigger asset for Modi who must rue the disproportionate ratio of sycophants and doers in his current team.
There are many former chief ministers whose experience as administrators would be of great value at the Centre — Devendra Fadnavis, Raman Singh, and Vasundhara Raje, to name a few. Former deputy CM of Bihar, Sushil Modi, also falls in this category. There is also the option of bringing Himanta Biswa Sarma to Delhi although it would be unfair on the BJP’s part to deny him chief ministership this time. It was he who virtually ran the government of Assam and the renewed mandate to the BJP must be credited to him. Then there are a host of young parliamentarians who are raring to prove their mettle as administrators.
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A PMO control room
There could be only two reasons if Modi hasn’t started ‘thinking’ about a revamp. First, the team doesn’t matter. All decisions are taken by the Prime Minister’s Office and so it doesn’t make a difference even if Modi decides to induct robots and zombies as ministers. You can count on your fingers the ministers who seem to have an understanding of the sectors they are handling. And I am talking about only aptitude, not performance. To be fair to others, they often look clueless because they are barely involved in the decision-making process.
The second reason for the lack of enthusiasm or urgency about the cabinet reshuffle could be complacency and over-confidence. People vote for Modi and he remains supremely popular. Nobody has got an answer to the ‘Modi-versus-Who’ question yet. His model of governance, good or bad, got a big thumbs-up from the people of India in 2019. So, why should he lose sleep or experiment with his team?
Sunday’s poll outcome in West Bengal should serve as a wake-up call for Modi. It’s a fact that he is popular in Bengal, notwithstanding the setback to the BJP. But Bengalis sent out a clear message on Sunday: They may love Modi but not his governance model. In 2014, India had voted for a strong and decisive leader and the Gujarat model of development. In 2019, India again voted for the strong and decisive leader and his welfarist model of governance. By 2021 though, the leader is still popular but there is growing scepticism about his governance model. The Covid pandemic has exposed the fault lines. Too much centralisation of power and decision-making has caused inefficiency and indifference at all levels of governance.
Modi can’t blame his ministers for sleeping at the wheel because he never empowered them to do anything better. There appeared to be three criteria for ministers’ performance appraisal: Regularity in the display of Modi bhakti on Twitter and other platforms; consistency in Gandhi family-bashing; and, frequent assertions of Hindu faith and nationalist credentials. No wonder, when people are dying for want of oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and other medical facilities, ministers are responding to the crisis with more praise for PM Modi. Just watch their daily tweets.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)