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Modi 3.0 Cabinet Reflects the Power of Caste and Dynasty in Indian Politics

I can see in Modi's new cabinet shades of a political churning that he has been compelled to acknowledge.

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Looking beyond the headlines is a fascinating exercise.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath for his third successive term, there was an eagerness to show that he was as much in command, and, as one headline put it: Modi starts third term, on his terms.

My sardonic reaction was: "Oh? Really?"  

You only have to look at the details below the headline to see that its wordplay may well contradict the meanings of the National Democratic Alliance government under Modi 3.0. I am waiting to know how much of this will be a mix of principled coordination and how much of it will be led by the pushes and pulls of demanding allies. You could call it an emerging mix of coalition dharma and coalition drama.

But then, the fact Amit Shah (home), Nirmala Sitharaman (finance), Nitin Gadkari (transport), S Jaishanker (external affairs) and Ashwini Vaishnaw (railways) are retaining their portfolios in the new cabinet shows that Modi is trying hard to enforce continuity in the face of adversity.

Significantly, railways as a portfolio subject is usually sought after by allies, and Modi has not given in.

Coalition ministers from parties like the Janata Dal (United), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Lok Janshakti Party (RV)  and Janata Dal (Secular) have respectively got ministries like Panchayat Raj, Civil Aviation, Food processing and Heavy Industry in a deft balancing act.

These ministries are juicy enough for the allies but are still below the power play radar which is a vital factor in New Delhi politics.

We still need to look at other details, including one on who will be the Lok Sabha speaker, and listen to emerging murmurs from coalition allies and discarded party loyalists. Honeymoon period optics go only so far.

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In Modi's New Cabinet, Shades of a Political Churning

Before we look at the fine print, it is time to doff a hat to filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose acclaimed 1976  movie, Manthan, was released anew this year in a remastered version at the Cannes Film Festival.  The Modi cabinet this year in a way reinforces the compulsions of rewriting the rules of economics and politics, and the movie remains an engaging metaphor for Indian society.

Manthan, literally meaning "The churning", is all about social and economic churn in a Gujarat village, based on the experiences of Dr. Varghese Kurien when he moved to Anand to usher in India's White Revolution. The story symbolised by Smita Patil's churning a milkpot involves caste, gender, and political twists that reflect politics to this day.

I can see in Modi's new cabinet shades of a political churning that he has been compelled to acknowledge in the manner he has constituted a council of ministers that spells both continuity and change.

The compulsions of coalition-making that have reined in the BJP's prominent agenda that reverberated through the prime minister's second term: the abolition of Article 370 for Kashmir, a Uniform Civil Code and much dog-whistling against affirmative action quotas for minority Muslims. Regional and caste leaders have officially set no outward conditions but have effectively set internal constraints for Modi.

The carefully crafted council of ministers also reflects the compulsions of the Modi-led BJP to keep in mind two contrasting factors: a necessity to reward those who have pulled in valuable seats to the new Lok Sabha, and a need to keep some others happy with an eye on future elections. This is because the never-ending social churn in India makes political compulsions inevitable.

Much as his party may project Modi as a towering visionary, he now has to look carefully in his rearview mirror as he starts a third term, though his party machinery may tell us that all he can see on his windshield is the highway to a Viksit Bharat (Developed India) in 2047. Twenty-three years is a long time for anyone to gaze into, least of all a leader under coalition compulsions.

A look at the ministerial break-up shows no representation for Muslims and only seven women in a council of ministers of 72 even as we see a significant expansion in size from the 56-member council of  Modi's previous government.  The political compulsion is such that Modi has had to bake his cake bigger and then cut it unevenly. 

In the Nationalist Congress Party's (NCP) explicit posture that it will accept only a cabinet post, not less, we see a stubbornness that illustrates how dealing with coalition allies is significantly different from dealing with party appointees, who in the BJP frequently swear that they are only karyakarthas (workers) happy to perform any task assigned to them.

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Caste and 'Parivaarvaad'

With 27 members from backward castes, 10 Dalits, five tribals, and four non-Muslim minority members in the council of ministers, the elaborate representation of various interests from 24 states looks quite elaborate, but the fact that only 33 members were ministers in the outgoing council shows that the BJP has had to prune its own ranks, partly on account of coalition compulsions and partly to acknowledge electoral defeats that BJP members suffered, including high-profile ones.

Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, grandson of former PM Charan Singh, is evidently in the council because he is from the Jat community of Western UP, while Jitin Prasad, a turncoat who moved to the BJP from the Congress, is there as a Brahmin community representative of Uttar Pradesh.

Strangely enough, they have been inducted more with an eye on future elections in the crucial state rather than their past performance, given the BJP's below-par show in the state. The BJP's avowed commitment against appeasement may apply to Muslims but not to Hindu castes or communities. When that is done, "appeasement" can be conveniently rephrased as "representation."

Then there is the sheer irony of the return of Parivaarvaad — Modi's pet peeve in election campaigns through the last few months. Both Chaudhary and Jitin Prasad, whose father Jitendra Prasad was once the opposition Congress party's political secretary, are scions representing dynastic rule that the BJP claims to oppose. 

Apart from these two, HD Kumaraswamy, Chirag Paswan, and Anupriya Patel are all scions of political leaders from allied parties.  Within its own ranks, the BJP has named Rao Inderjit Singh, Bansuri Swaraj and Jyotiraditya Scindia, all of whom owe their rise in politics to their parents.

You could say Modi has acquiesced to the idea of soft parivarvaad.

What is real in all this is that governance in India does not run on the whims or wishes of a popular mass leader but on the ground realities in which caste, family connections, local factors, and ambitions play a key role. 

'Modi 3.0' may seem like a progression to those who compare the terminology to software upgrades. But, like in computers, the best software can underperform if the hardware does not match up. Hard realities have made Modi's third term more of a reversion to the mean value in India's complex electoral arithmetic.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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