September 3 Reshuffle: Modi’s out-of-box stamp
The recent reshuffling of the Cabinet, Narendra Modi’s third since he came to power in May 2014, has been most comprehensive. In the shadow of the 2019 election, he has been uncharacteristically careful to violate the conventional norms and not to irk any caste or community.
The surprise element was the induction of four former bureaucrats among the nine new faces in the new cabinet. Their bringing in even at the risk of heart-burning and rumblings in his senior and well-entrenched party leaders has also been dictated by the need to complete the unfinished schemes promised during campaigning in 2014.
The government has been facing flak from the opposition for ‘non-performance’’. And Modi could not ignore such damaging orchestration, with the general election 19 months away.
The dropping of the under-performers, promotion of minister of states who performed well, reallocation of important ministries, and the choice of the newcomers including the four retired bureaucrats, whose careers have been extraordinarily remarkable, have all been dictated by the need to complete unfinished projects like housing for all, toilets and electricity in villages, the completion or even near completion of which will make for a visible change.
Once the new amenities are made available at a larger scale, the opposition’s charge that the government has been making false claims will lose sting.
Modi has taken a bold decision to assign electorally crucial portfolios to the four retired bureaucrats who as ministers of state with independent charge, he expects, will complete the jobs entrusted to them. The scale of Modi’s support base will depend on their performance to quite an extent.
Come to think of it Modi has taken a well-calculated risk. Since all of them have 25 to 35 years of administrative experience and they know the nuts and bolts of the system, they are good and effective implementers of the policies handed by over the government. Their present assignments are almost similar to what they have been doing throughout their long careers, except they are now ministers. Except, that now they have to complete the projects which are directly linked with the development of backward areas and better the quality of life of the people there.
Significantly, all the four do not have any political head, which means there will be no political interference. Another significant departure from the previous reshufflings has been Modi’s sticking to the conventional norms, like ensuring that all regions are represented, and so are castes. Although the BJP leaders who have a list of grievances against the new inductions pointed out that the Modi and Shah duo, failed to accommodate two key poll-bound states in the reshuffle: Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
In earlier reshuffles Modi did deviate and experimented with new ideas knowing like inducting someone who has an outstanding record of public service, although choosing him could mean over-representation of one region to the detriment of another.
But the General Election very much in sight Modi has been careful not to irk any community, caste or region. In fact he has rather unashamedly taken care to humour all important castes. He dropped a Mishra (Kalraj) from UP but inducted a Shukla (Shiv Pratap Shukla) from UP. A Rajput (Rajiv Pratap Rudy) from Bihar was dropped but another Rajput (R.K. Singh) from Bihar was freshly inducted.
In fact even in view of state Assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, Virendra Kumar has been inducted …. .to ensure a caste and regional balance in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, ahead of the Assembly polls in the state next year.
Kumar as a representative from the region became an obvious choice especially after Union minister Uma Bharti, a BJP stalwart from Bundelkhand and a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh who once dominated the region, moved out of the state and got elected as an MP from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. Apparently Modi is now in Election mode.
Obviously a lot of thinking and discussions with Amit Shah has preceded the final reshuffling. And their tact apparently to shock and bewilder the opposition, and the strategy to make the reshuffled cabinet appear as a unbeatable combination of doers and clean image has by and large succeeded.
The bold move to elevate and make Nirmala Sitharaman, a full-fledged Defence Minister that shocked not only the opposition but foreign powers as well, sources say, was not taken ‘overnight’. All pros and cons were considered—the reaction of the officers and jawans in particular. But in 17 countries including France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Norway and South Africa, women are Defence Ministers, and their armies are known to be excellent fighting forces. In fact at an international conference, Defence Ministers of Australia, France and Spain, reportedly introduced themselves saying, we are all women, we all are Defence Ministers and we all are beautiful. A testimony of confidence, this and which brought the delegates on their feet.
In such a background Nirmala Sitharaman’s choice was most appropriate, she is clear-headed, positive in her approach, lucid, strong and is known for probity in public. In just a few days after her appointment she met all the three chiefs even before she took charge from Arun Jaitley.
After taking charge possibly her first decision to recruit 800 women for Military Police is an indicator that she has a mind of her own. It augurs well. We all how junior officers in the Defence Ministry who might not know the difference between a revolver and pistol, interfere in the purchase of military equipment and armaments, which delays acquisitions. With this new Defence Minister such things are hardly likely to happen.
Army Chief General Rawat has already clarified that gender is no issue, he expressed happiness that the Forces after a long time got a full-time minister.
She will, however, be tested all the time, with both China and Pakistan determined to keep India on the boil.
The opposition, particularly the Congress, unable to pick holes in the reshuffle, criticised the choice of Nirmala Sitharaman saying she had no experience. Did Swaran Singh, Baldev Singh, Narasimha Rao, Y. B. Chavan and Jagjivan Ram, all Defence Ministers in Congress governments had any army background?
She herself said, “Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership, and if given such responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there. Otherwise, it is impossible.”
But the opposition apart which has criticised her as a greenhorn, her Cosmic Grace has not prevented heartburns in quite a large number of party members. They are pained the ministerial berths have been given to four former bureaucrats and the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal to important Cabinet positions, despite being “political lightweights”.
“Are they (bureaucrats) capable of winning an election? This holds true for even Sitharaman and Goyal.
Can they even contest an election?” a party leader fumed.
A few others said, “Neither merit nor loyalty is being rewarded. Why was Nirmala Sitharaman promoted? There was nothing to write home about her performance as commerce minister. And why do Suresh Prabhu and Radhamohan Singh continue to hold important portfolios despite a below par performance?”
But all these mutterings will not worry Modi. He is determined to win a second term, and for that he has blended the tactical with the strategic to choose members of the Cabinet, a good and trustworthy block of men and women, who are proficient, productive, popular and are doers.
The rejigged cabinet shows Modi is arming himself with the list of fulfilled promises he made, and more importantly he has inducted former bureaucrats, all known to have done remarkably well in their careers, to complete the schemes expeditiously still not fully completed projects, which will enlarge his support base. The opposition is in chaotic confusion, and naturally worried at Modi’s preparedness.
The problem that Modi and Shah might have to tackle is the feeling post –the reshuffle is that the Modi-Shah duo does not trust the capabilities of their own party members. Even worse, it also gives the impression that loyalty is not being rewarded adequately.
“Neither merit nor loyalty is being rewarded. Why was Nirmala Sitharaman promoted? There was nothing to write home about her performance as commerce minister. And why do Suresh Prabhu and Radhamohan Singh continue to hold important portfolios despite a below par performance?” commented a party leader from a northern state.
Insiders say the final list came as a shock to many leaders who were confident of making the cut. It is no coincidence that all those within the BJP who have been left disappointed have put in years of hard work for the BJP, even when the party was in Opposition.
“People, who have been serving the party for years, how should they feel when outsiders having no political background, are made ministers? It is not about becoming or not becoming a minister, it is about the loud message that has been sent- that the leadership has little faith on the elected members,” said a party leader, according to a media report.
“The rejig is a stamp of approval on the claims that BJP has a talent crunch.” the leader added.
Modi and Shah have to explain why Puri, Kannathanam and RK Singh, all political greenhorns, have been given MoS with Independent charge of key ministries like Urban Development, Tourism and Power respectively.
Modi might be sanguine that these mumbling leaders have no alternative, but to hang on with the BJP. But instead of letting them sulk, if they can be made to see the logic behind inducting the bureaucrats, Modi will get more active support for his Mission 2019.
Modi and Shah have given due consideration to the factors like caste and RSS background, they do well to explain the inclusion of the “political non-entities”.
This third reshuffle will mainly decide whether Amit Shah realize his target of 350 BJP seats, but another minor shuffling is expected shortly. This shuffling was among the BJP members only, the allied parties which were expecting a few ministerial berths are presently quite agitated.
At least BJP’s new partner, the JD(U), was expected to get representation in the central government, but it turned otherwise. JD(U) spokesperson KC Tyagi said his party was not invited to join the government. The Shiv Sena too was unhappy with its non-inclusion in the Cabinet, stating that the NDA was “almost dead” and that BJP remembered it only when it needed some support.
Sources said that both the JD(U) and Shiv Sena are pushing for more seats. JD(U) has two MPs in the Lok Sabha and seven in the Rajya Sabha, and it expects one seat in the Cabinet and two MoS. Its claim has force because the BJP is in power in Bihar because of Nitish’s support.
Even Akali Dal and TDP, both have their representatives in the Cabinet, have reportedly asked for more.
BJP sources said that members of their alliance might join the government later as there was still a scope for expansion of the Union Council of Ministers. They, however, added that a decision on the allies joining the government would be taken later.
Many ministers are holding additional portfolios, several alliance members can easily be accommodated. The minor rejig is expected after names for governors and a few other high profile positions are decided.
Modi hopes all the tremors from the reshuffling will simmer down, the new team will deliver and make visible the work done by his government, and with Amit Shah sail through 2019 for another five year of sabka saath, sab ka vikas.
The significance of the September 3, reshuffle and its impact on the course of politics will be felt for a long time.
By Vijay Dutt