Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic ministerial reshuffle this week reflects the shifting power equations between the government and the BJP’s ideological mentor RSS as well as within the ruling party establishment. The extraordinary range of changes in the reallocation of portfolios has belied neat assumptions made by political pundits about the Modi regime.
It shows that the prime minister and his all-powerful henchman Amit Shah are constantly reassessing what they consider the right political tactics and strategies to take their agenda forward.
Clearly the most astounding aspect of the reshuffle has been the radical surgery in the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry so far under the thumb of the RSS. In one stroke, both the high-profile cabinet minister Smriti Irani known to be close to Krishna Gopal Sharma, the RSS general secretary-in-charge of the BJP, and her deputy Ram Shankar Katheria, a former RSS pracharak, have been shunted out.
Media speculation has only focussed on the fall from grace of the flamboyant lady minister.
But the simultaneous removal of Katheria, a Dalit pracharak of the RSS for 13 years in Agra, shortly after he called for “the saffronisation of education” appears to be a huge concession to the prime minister by the RSS.
RSS Takes Over Environment Ministry
Modi is believed to have convinced the RSS that the controversies raging around the HRD were seriously damaging the government’s image, particularly among the younger generation. In Irani’s case, party president Amit Shah is said to have insisted that her continuance in the ministry was a political liability in the run-up to next year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, since many Dalits in the state held her responsible for the death of the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula, a student of Hyderabad University, who took his life last January after being hounded by the university authorities under pressure from the HRD ministry.
Her replacement, Prakash Javadekar, a complete yes-man to Modi and Shah will be careful not to rock the boat and Upendra Kushwaha who has taken over from Katheria is not even from the BJP, let alone have an RSS background, but is a leader of a minor ally in Bihar.
Yet, there is quid pro quo. In return for giving up its stranglehold over HRD, the RSS appears to have claimed the environment ministry with Anil Madhav Dave, son of an RSS pracharak and known to be very close to the Sangh. He also has a long record of environmental activism, providing quite a contrast to Javadekar, who had riled a section of the RSS by giving environmental licenses to industrial projects at breakneck pace.
Jayant Pays for Father’s Diatribes
The other very intriguing change in the Modi cabinet was the shifting of Jayant Sinha, the dynamic Minister of State for finance, to the less prestigious civil aviation. Some view this as a result of the constant sniping of the government by his father, veteran BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. However, this seems unlikely since the senior Sinha has been even more critical of the Modi regime in the past, without either affecting his son’s appointment to the finance ministry or the wide ranging powers he wielded in the post.
A more plausible explanation is the camaraderie that Harvard Business School-educated Jayant Sinha enjoyed with both outgoing RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian because of their common Ivy League international background. This means that the prime minister’s recent disapproval in a television interview, of Subramanian Swamy’s rants against foreign-educated economists driving India’s economic policy, may have been just damage control, and the BJP maverick may be reflecting the sentiments of people who have far more political heft than him.
BJP’s Dual Power Centre
Finally, it is now clear that the only two persons who call the shots today in the ruling party are Narendra Modi and his alter ego Amit Shah. The party president’s status as a virtual proxy for the prime minister was underlined after he, rather than Modi, met the various new entrants to the ministerial council and those who were being dropped.
Consequently, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who till recently was seen as a third leg of a power triumvirate along with Modi and Shah, may no longer be so. Enormously influential in the media, he has lost the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the accomplished lawyer could have also suffered a setback in the law ministry which is back in the hands of another lawyer Ravi Shankar Prasad, likely to be far more hands-on than a cipher like the previous incumbent Sadanand Gowda.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist.)