Cabinet Expansion Comes Down to 4 Points & 1 Question – Will Anything Change?
There are 36 new faces, 7 promotions and 12 resignations. But can a PMO-centered government bring policy change?
The 'reshuffle' of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Council of Ministers ended up being much more of an overhaul with 36 new ministers being sworn in, 12 incumbent ministers being removed and 7 being promoted.
Among those who resigned from their positions included Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Law and Information & Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, Environment and Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar and HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank'.
Prominent among the new inductees were former Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, former Maharashtra CM Narayan Rane, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who left the Congress to join the BJP last year, and Pashupati Kumar Paras, who split the Lok Janshakti Party, a BJP ally in Bihar. Bhupender Yadav, too, was included and his rise in the party seems to be continuing.
This article will look at the four key aspects of this reshuffle-cum-expansion and try to answer the key, big-ticket question – will this change anything?
1. FROM HARSH VARDHAN TO SANTOSH GANGWAR, THE EXITS TELL A STORY
The biggest casualty of the cabinet overhaul was Vardhan, who resigned as the Union health minister. It is believed that he paid the price for the criticism that the government faced over its handling of the COVID-19 second wave and the vaccination process.
Vardhan was the only minister from Delhi. Now, the position will be taken by Meenakshi Lekhi who has been included as a new minister.
The Minister of State in the health ministry Ashwini Kumar Chaube is also said to have resigned, paving the way for a complete change in the ministry, which was in the eye of a storm during the pandemic.
Prasad's exit is also significant. He is known to have been a PM Modi loyalist and was often the most vocal in attacking the government's critics. His exit comes at a time when the government is facing flak for the new IT rules and the ongoing tussle with Twitter in particular.
Javadekar and 'Nishank', too, had been facing flak due to the underperformance of their respective ministries.
Like the health ministry, the social justice and empowerment ministry will also see a change of two ministers with Cabinet minister Thawarchand Gehlot being appointed the Governor of Karnataka and Rattan Lal Kataria resigning.
Two new Dalit faces are likely in this ministry.
Gehlot's exit is significant as it opens up two more spaces in the BJP – those of the leader of the house in the Rajya Sabha and a position in the BJP's highest decision-making body, the Parliamentary Board.
An exit of a different kind was that of Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar. He had written a letter openly criticising the functioning of the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh. An MP from Bareilly, Gangwar is a prominent OBC face of the party and it appears that he might have paid the price for taking on Adityanath.
That the Modi government chose to remove a prominent Adityanath critic also gives an indication of the UP CM's bargaining power.
The other ministers to resign were: Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers DV Sadananda Gowda, Minister of State for Women and Child Development Debasree Chaudhuri, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo and Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries and Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises Pratap Sarangi.
2. 'TURNCOATS' LIKE SCINDIA AND NARAYAN RANE REWARDED
A key feature of the Cabinet expansion was the manner, in which the government rewarded turncoats who left their parties to join the BJP. Two such prominent leaders to be included in the Cabinet are former Maharashtra CM Narayan Rane, who was earlier in the Shiv Sena and the Congress and Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose exit from the Congress last year was instrumental in bringing down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
Nisith Pramanik, who was earlier in the All India Trinamool Congress and joined BJP in 2019, was also rewarded and he will be the youngest minister in Modi's council of ministers. He is a prominent face from the Koch Rajbongshi community that had consolidated BJP's base in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Though he has not joined the BJP, similar is the case of Late LJP founder Ram Vilas Paswan's brother Pashupati Kumar Paras, who recently expelled Chirag Paswan as the leader of the LJP's parliamentary party. His elevation is a clear snub by the BJP towards Chirag Paswan.
A slightly older turncoat to be rewarded is Kapil Moreshwar Patil, who moved from the NCP to the BJP in 2014.
The reward given to Scindia and Rane in particular may be seen as the BJP's way of inviting more entrants from other parties, particularly the Congress in its mission of having a 'Congress Mukt Bharat'.
3. MORE SPACE TO ALLIES
After the exit of the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal from the NDA and the demise of Ram Vilas Paswan, there was only one minister from an allied party in the Modi government – Ramdas Athawale.
Now, two key allies have been included: the Janata Dal (United) and the Apna Dal. Senior JD(U) leader RCP Singh is all set to join the Cabinet while Anupriya Patel of the Apna Dal could be given MoS rank.
While Singh's inclusion is crucial in preserving the BJP's equation with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Patel coming on board must be seen in the context of the Uttar Pradesh elections and the Apna Dal's influence among Kurmi voters in parts of East UP.
Pashupati Paras is the other non-BJP leader to be accommodated.
4. AN ATTEMPT TO MANAGE EQUATIONS IN KEY STATES
The expansion is also an attempt by the BJP to manage political equations in key states. These include poll-bound states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur, which will go to polls early next year and Gujarat that will go to polls late next year.
As many as eight of the new ministers are from Uttar Pradesh: Pankaj Choudhary, Anuradha Patel, SP Singh Baghel, Bhanu Pratap Singh Verma, Kaushal Kishore, BL Verma and Ajay Kumar.
The BJP has tried to balance caste and regional dynamics.
Interestingly, while Yogi-critic Gangwar was removed, another leader who wrote to the CM criticising the functionaing of two hospitals – Kaushal Kishore – has been made a minister.
From Uttarakhand, while former CM Nishank resigned, the BJP has included prominent Brahmin leader Ajay Bhatt in the council of ministers.
The other poll-bound state to get a minister is Manipur. Inner Manipur MP Rajkumar Ranjan Singh has been included in the government.
Punjab and Goa didn't get any new inclusions and the older ministers from the two states – Som Parkash and Shripad Naik – will be continuing.
Gujarat, that goes to polls next year, has got three new ministers: Darshana Jardosh, Devusinh Chauhan, and Mahendrabhai Munjapara.
In addition to these, current MoS Parshottam Rupala has been elevated to cabinet rank.
Though not poll bound, the BJP has made significant inclusions that may have an impact on political equations in a number of states.
Karnataka: on one hand, DV Sadananda Gowda has resigned from the Cabinet but on the other hand, a number of new ministers have come in: Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Shobha Karandalaje, A Narayanswamy and Bhagwanth Khuba. The new inclusions are said to be aimed at containing CM BS Yeddyurappa's influence.
Two ministers from Bengal – Babul Supriyo and Debasree Chaudhuri – have resigned. But the state has been given four new ministers: Subhas Sarkar, Shantanu Thakur, John Barla, and Nisith Pramanik.
Barla, Pramanik and Thakur are key to managing the BJP's social engineering in the state as they belong to tea garden adivasi, Rajbongshi and Matua communities respectively. Sarkar on the other hand is from Bankura in the western part of the state, where the BJP had made significant inroads during the Lok Sabha elections. It appears that the BJP is promoting a leadership centered around North and Western parts of the state and from marginalised communities.
Maharashtra has got four new ministers: Narayan Rane, Kapil Patil, Bhagwat Karad and Bharati Patil. Rane's inclusion in particular is important as he has earlier been in two of the three parties in the anti-BJP coalition currently ruling the state.
THE BIG PICTURE – WILL THIS 'EXPANSION' CHANGE ANYTHING?
The timing of the reshuffle is also crucial. PM Modi is now nearly halfway through his second term in office. The government is also facing flak for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, particularly price-rise and unemployment. In such a situation, PM Modi may have wanted to not just bring large-scale changes but also be seen to be doing so.
Not to leave anything to chance, the government even distributed talking points about the reshuffle to the media, in its efforts to project this as some kind of game-changer. But will it change anything?
As pointed out earlier, there are 36 new faces in the government – many of them are first-time MPs and a few are from non-BJP backgrounds. The council of ministers has become younger with the average age now below 60. The representation of SCs, STs, OBCs and women has increased, which seems to be an attempt to strengthen the BJP's base in these sections.
While in terms of balancing competing interests and symbolism, the party seems to have acted decisively.
However, it remains to be seen if this 'change' in faces brings about any real transformation in the government's functioning.
The main problem for the government remains excessive centralisation with the PMO, which is unlikely to change even with the addition of new ministers. Therefore the policy bottle-necks of the past seven years are likely to remain.
Then, the PM is unlikely to change his approach of being the only face of the government in terms of taking political mileage but one that is unwilling to take responsibility in public for the shortcomings.
This would leave most of the ministers in a very tricky position.
Harsh Vardhan's removal is a case in point. It would be unfair to blame him alone for the alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, since most of the decisions were being taken at the PM's level and there is very little that the health minister could have done.
Yet, in the eyes of the public, it was Vardhan who was left to answer tough questions.
Now, it is true that Vardhan didn't help his own case through unnecessary statements. The same can be said about Prasad or maybe even Nishank. But in reality all of them were only doing what the high command wanted.
Therefore, the Cabinet overhaul may help BJP politically in crucial areas, it is unlikely to have a major impact from the policy point of view.
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