Was Cabinet reshuffle a poll waltz, asks Shekhar Iyer

Every Cabinet reshuffle is often driven by pure political considerations—rather than public perceptions of ministers—old and new. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ministers have not got to assume an independent image of themselves. Therefore, inductions and exclusions can only reflect on what the PM intends to do ahead. At the same time, as the dominating ruling party, the BJP may be susceptible to internal caste and community dynamics that puts pressure to accommodate new entrants or assign new roles for old faces and young ones too.

There may also be the desire to reward allies to show that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is not over yet. Or, it could have been driven by the importance of focussing on a region like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, where polls will be held next year and the political appeal of the BJP will have to be renewed.

Questions about rejig

But, to which category does Prime Minister Narendra Modi's sweeping reshuffle of his Cabinet on July 7 belong? Now that a week has almost passed by, some questions may seem relevant. Was it to protect Modi's own image because of the perceived inefficiencies, failures and controversies of his government? If so, has Modi tried to save his image by removing 12 ministers and inducting 43 new ones? Do the common people really care about who have become new ministers? Do they still believe that Modi’s problems are due to the quality of his ministers? And not because of his stewardship of the government through the very turbulent times?
These questions can provoke varied answers and opinions— but any critic would concede that there is still a lot of hope and trust in Modi’s abilities to negotiate the crises ahead.

Yes, the economy remains one of the biggest concerns of all sections—from the man on the street, to top corporate honchos. Therefore, the government’s second term may appear to be lacklustre. Many of its plans, including the ambitious one to make India a $5-trillion economy, have not got a boost yet. There are so many schemes and headline-making announcements and too many things in the pipeline— that one does get confused about priorities and the pace of their implementation.

Clubbing together

Therefore, it is possible that Modi has carried out one of the biggest reshuffles of the Union council of ministers in recent times in the hope of bringing in some fresh hands for enthusiasm and drive into his team. Also, Modi has adopted a new strategy regarding the ministries — clubbing related ones together under the same minister. Chemicals (read) pharmaceuticals and fertilisers, for instance, come under the health minister for the first time. Education and skill development are together under one minister. So are commerce and textiles.

Analysts do recall that combination of portfolios was talked about in 2014 too but it was about “minimum government and maximum governance”. We do not hear of this maximum often because a lot of people still count on the Central government for solutions. So, its size and influence is not a big debating point, unlike, say in the US, where these issues matter much.
This time, it appears that the efforts of the PM have been to put the same minister in charge of ministries that could benefit from working together. Therefore, the government remains as big as ever.

As a result, 32 ministers (of whom 30 are of Cabinet rank and two are ministers of state with independent charge) will manage all ministries, supported by 35 ministers of state, of whom at least some have been appointed for purely political reasons. Also, of the 43 ministers, seven are women and all are new to the government.

Social justice card

There is no doubt that Modi has ensured that the BJP's social pyramid has expanded as a result, to send out a strong appeal to the electorate.
Under him, the BJP has always shown that it will play the game better so that no other political party should have any scope to take advantage of the ‘social justice card’.

That explains why there are 27 ministers from 19 other backward class (OBC) communities spread across 15 states in the new team of ministers under Modi. In all, Modi’s emphasis on OBCs and SCs/STs was very clear. A total of 47 members of the 77-strong council of ministers belong to this group. There are also eight ministers from the scheduled tribes (ST) from across seven communities and eight states and 12 ministers from scheduled castes (SC) from across 12 communities and eight states.
That is why we have had Modi’s aides explain to us that the BJP could not delay these socially sensitive groups their due. Therefore, it is one of the ‘achievements’ of the reshuffle exercise.

The BJP has had to respond to the aspiring ambitions of leaders belonging to these groups in states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Winning the polls in UP and Gujarat in 2022 is very crucial for the BJP. These new ministers can play an important role in wooing their voters in respective areas.

Opposition criticism

Of course, many opposition leaders have criticised Modi, saying that these changes only prove the PM and his government had bungled since 2019. They have also demanded that the PM take the blame on himself rather than on ministers, 12 of whom were axed.

True, the second wave of Covid-19 had put the Centre in the dock. But when shortage of beds, oxygen supplies and a steep rise in the number of deaths across cities had left everyone deeply shocked and distressed with terrible memories, can changing some ministers really help?

Modi should know better. Public perceptions are not static. When things improve, people's opinions also change. Therefore, we could be wrong in believing entirely that the PM effected the changes only because Covid-19 had dented his image and that of his government. Rather, it is no secret that Modi has been exasperated with the performance of his ministers for a long time. That was even before Covid-19 struck India. The PM has tired of telling them that he wanted them to shift their approach. But they were seen to be too obsessed with their turfs and systemic processes, rather than towards seeking an outcome on the field.

What Modi wanted
It would not be wrong to say that Modi knew what he wanted: a younger team of ministers that would appreciate his sense of priorities, serve the government and the BJP in the future and energise the system as a whole. That is why just playing caste equations was Modi's concern. He cannot ignore the performance as one of his benchmarks for induction of new faces and exclusion of others. That is also why he took the risk of creating new ministries, bringing in relatively junior hands or greenhorns to handle sensitive and demanding ministries.

The big question is whether Modi has now got the kind of ministers he wanted or will there more reshuffles a year from now? Ultimately, the deliverables and results on the ground will matter ahead of the next round of the Lok Sabha polls in 2024. The PM may be no more willing to suffer inefficient and underperformers in key areas like Covid management, IT technology, the railways or civil aviation.

But he also knows that the buck stops with him. The countdown to the next round of elections has begun.

The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi

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