"Wo kisi ko bhi zameen se laakar pad de sakte hain aur bade se bade chehre ko vaapas zameen par gira sakte hain (He can bring anyone from the ground and give them a position and he can also bring down even the most prominent of faces back on the ground)".
This is what a younger BJP functionary from a Hindi-belt state said regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership style on 8 July, following the expansion of the Union Council of Ministers a day earlier.
The expansion saw 36 new ministers being sworn in, seven ministers of state being promoted and 12 ministers getting dropped.
There could be different backstories to the rise and fall of the different leaders in the reshuffle, but there is a common narrative running through the entire exercise – everything depends on PM Modi's wishes.
This must be stating the obvious because it is well known that the PM's will is supreme in both party and government. But the overhaul of the Council of Ministers does reveal some important facets of the PM's style of leadership.
1. The Revolving Door of Blue-Eyed Boys: Suresh Prabhu, Piyush Goyal and Ashwini Vaishnaw
The Ministry of Railways is a very good place to understand this. DV Sadananda Gowda was Modi's first railways minister but he was replaced within six months by PM Modi's then blue-eyed boy – former Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu.
Prabhu remained at the helm until 2017, after which it was given to another erstwhile favourite Piyush Goyal. The latter has now been divested of the railways portfolio, in what is being seen as a demotion for him. And this has gone to a new favourite and the biggest gainer in the entire cabinet overhaul – Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha Ashwini Vaishnaw.
A former bureaucrat, Vaishnaw will hold the railways portfolio in addition to communications and information technology.
Vaishnaw is a political lightweight, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Odisha with the BJD's help. He isn't even originally from the state so the BJP has little to gain politically by elevating him.
Also, it's not as if Goyal or Prabhu, did anything that Modi didn't want or offended him in any way. But that's how the PM functions – favourites keep changing and no minister should consider himself indispensable.
2. Never Sail in Two Boats – the Case of Sushil Modi
An interesting case here is that of former Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi. Ever since he was brought to the Rajya Sabha in December 2020, it was said that it was just a matter of time before he is made a minister in the Union government.
Even in the current reshuffle, he was being considered as a strong probable. But when the chosen ones began flying to Delhi, Sushil Modi remained in Bihar. Soon it became clear that he had been left out. What went wrong for him?
"When he was the deputy CM, he worked more as Nitish Kumar's man in the BJP and not as BJP's representative in Nitish's government," a BJP leader from Bihar said.
Another line of criticism is that Sushil Modi didn't allow parallel leadership to emerge within the Bihar BJP. On the other hand, Modi promoted many leaders critical of Nitish, central minister Giriraj Singh is a case in point.
It is clear that PM Modi prefers leaders who put loyalty to leadership and party first over those like Sushil Modi, who are seen as competent in the work they do but try to balance between different power centers.
3. Not Just Loyalty, PM Prefers People Who Owe Their Careers Entirely to Him
One of the removed ministers is known to have publicly professed his undying loyalty to Modi in rather visible terms on an earlier occasion. Yet that helped him only as much and didn't ensure that he would always remain in favour.
The thing about PM Modi's leadership is that merely professing, even public display of loyalty isn't enough. He is known to actively prefer leaders who owe their entire careers to him.
An interesting case is that of Mansukh Mandaviya, the new minister for health, chemicals and fertilisers. He became an MLA in 2002, the year Modi got elected as the Gujarat chief minister for the first time. Mandaviya won from Palitana in Bhavnagar district of Saurashtra, in an election where the BJP didn't do as well in the region compared to other parts of Gujarat.
He hasn't won an election since then. He has been a Rajya Sabha MP since 2012 and in 2016 he became Minister of State in the ministries of Road Transport, Highways, Shipping and Chemicals & Fertilizers.
Mandaviya is a political lightweight and completely owes his rise to Modi.
A somewhat, though not entirely contrasting case is that of Smriti Irani who has been divested of the textiles portfolio.
Unlike Mandaviya, Irani isn't a political nobody. Having defeated Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in 2019, Irani has earned a certain political stature on her own might.
Though she has never been a political threat to Modi, she doesn't quite fit in the category of people Modi prefers - those who owe their entire careers to him.
As a result, she sees her influence diminished. It had already been in decline from the time when she was HRD minister in the previous Modi government.
4. The Lesson From Those Who Were Axed - Harsh Vardhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar
Harsh Vardhan's removal as health minister is being seen in the context of the criticism that the government faced over its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, it is unfair to blame Harsh Vardhan entirely for it as much of the decisions surrounding the pandemic were being taken by the PMO.
His removal comes with an unfortunate lesson: the credit may belong to the PM, but ministers pay the price for failure even when the decisions weren't theirs.
To some extent this is also reflected in the resignation of Ravi Shankar Prasad who was the face of the government's public spat with Twitter.
Prasad, Javadekar and Harsh Vardhan were prominent faces of the government who got a lot of coverage in the media and social media. Babul Supriyo was in the same category at least in the Bengal context.
Yet, this public profile and strong statements attacking opponents couldn't save them when they went out of favour.
5. 'Yes Prime Minister': The Rise and Rise of Bureaucrat Mantris under Modi
Modi's preference for former bureaucrats as ministers increased towards the end of his first term when RK Singh and Hardeep Puri were inducted and his has grown several times since. Former foreign secretary S Jaishankar being appointed foreign minister in Modi's second term is a clear example of it.
In the recent reshuffle, Ashwini Vaishnaw and RCP Singh are two former bureaucrats inducted as new faces. Former IFS officer and MoS for housing and urban development Hardeep Puri was made cabinet minister and given the addition charge of petroleum and natural gas. Power Minister RK Singh, a former IAS officer, was also given cabinet rank in the cabinet reshuffle.
Former secretary in the government of India Anil Swarup joked on Twitter after the reshuffle, "There is something seriously amiss here. What will the country achieve by handing over Railways, Housing, Energy, Steel, Foreign Affairs, Petroleum, IT and Communication to Babus?"
Even when he was the Gujarat CM, Modi preferred working through bureaucrats so it's not surprising that this practice has continued during his prime ministership.
The Big Picture
It's not as if the PM has removed all those who have some stature independent of him - Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari remain untouched.
Two other survivors from the old guard are Arjun Munda and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Representation is another buzzword in the reshuffle- a higher number of SCs, STs, OBCs, women and people from the Northeast are now ministers and considerations from poll-bound states have also been factored in.
However, the big picture is that the entire reshuffle is an exercise in asserting Modi's power and maintaining his projected infallibility.
So, first-time MPs are brought out of nowhere and rewarded with plum ministries, sending the message that people can get inordinate rewards if they have the PM's blessings.
Older hands like Harsh Vardhan are being sacrificed for collective failures of the government, so that the PM's teflon image can be maintained.
And marginalised communities are given more representation again because it strengthens Modi's image as a benevolent populist.