In his ‘Second Coming’ as prime minister, Narendra Modi has signaled that he means business with his choice of ministers for the key portfolios of home, finance and external affairs.
Convention, party considerations and possible RSS reservations were ignored, as Modi handpicked persons he trusts to get the job done in the three ministries he has identified as the thrust areas of his next five years.
The surprise lateral entry of a technocrat in the form of ex-diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as foreign minister, the huge promotion awarded to Amit Shah who leapfrogged into the home ministry – once held by political giants like Sardar Patel and LK Advani – and the appointment of low-profile Nirmala Sitharaman as the country’s first woman finance minister to tackle the huge economic challenges facing the country, are all signs that Modi 2.0 is working to plan in the hope of creating a legacy for which he will be remembered in the history books.
S Jaishankar As Foreign Minister May Help Modi Fulfill His Global Goals
So, what is this plan? The exact contours will emerge over time but some indications are available. Modi has been big on foreign policy from the beginning and in his first term as PM, he lost no time in headhunting a foreign secretary who could help breathe life into his vision of India’s international destiny as a global power. Jaishankar superceded many in the external affairs ministry and caused the untimely exit of the then foreign secretary Sujata Singh, when he took her place in January 2015.
In the three years that he was foreign secretary, Jaishankar helped navigate Modi’s diplomacy through highs and lows, including the critical face-off with China at Doklam in Bhutan in 2017. In the process, they rewrote old doctrines and brought new energy into foreign policy with an aggressive outreach to NRI communities outside, while building friendships across the globe through trips to countries that no Indian prime minister had visited in several decades.
As Modi prepares to fulfill his dream of getting India to the international high table next to the US, China and Russia, it’s only natural that he should turn to the man who shares his goals and can prepare a road map to achieve them.
It’s of little consequence to Modi that Jaishankar is neither a politician nor an MP. Three seats in the Rajya Sabha are falling vacant with the election of Amit Shah, Smriti Irani and Ravi Shankar Prasad to the Lok Sabha. Jaishankar will get one of them, although it may mean depriving an aspirant from the BJP.
‘Crowning Glory’: Nirmala Sitharaman As India’s First Woman Finance Minister
Sitharaman’s appointment as finance minister is a clear indication that the real driver of the government’s fiscal and economic policy will be the bureaucrats and wonks in the PMO. Sitharaman’s chief value to Modi is her competence as an efficient implementer. He believes that she can deliver on his plans for the revival of the economy. This is his biggest challenge ahead, and the success of his foreign policy vision depends on creating a huge growth surge to catapult India as the world’s third largest economy by 2030.
Sitharaman came into Modi’s council of ministers in 2014 as a protégé of Arun Jaitley. But over time, she has established a good rapport with Modi and key officials in his PMO, especially during her tenure as defence minister, when the government was rocked by the Rafale controversy.
There’s added value in the fact that she is a woman and Modi 2.0 can boast of appointing the country’s first woman finance minister just as Modi 1.0 had claimed a certificate for the choice of the first woman defence minister.
(A small caveat: Indira Gandhi held both portfolios at some point during her tenure as prime minister, but obviously, as additional charge.)
Amit Shah, As Home Minister, Could Be As Powerful As Sardar Patel
The minister to watch, however, is Amit Shah. While Rajnath Singh will probably remain the official number 2 minister in the government because of his seniority, no guesses for who will actually be the second most powerful man after Modi. Shah is Modi’s alter ego, a relationship built over the years from their days in Gujarat when he was home minister to chief minister Modi.
In those years, Shah was Modi’s eyes and ears and worked to consolidate his position as CM and later, to prepare the way for the journey to New Delhi and Raisina Hill. Now, as union home minister, he will have a much larger canvas to work with as he sets about working on the task entrusted to him, which is to draw up a new political agenda for new India.
A home minister is as powerful as the PM allows him to be. Shah will probably be the most powerful home minister after Sardar Patel because of the trust Modi reposes in him. Look at the breadth of his empire.
The Intelligence Bureau, the paramilitary forces, the police and other arms of state power are controlled by the Home Ministry. Although the CBI is technically overseen by the ministry of personnel, it is entirely conceivable that Modi will assign it to Shah.
Amit Shah’s To-Do List As Home Minister
The challenges are enormous as are the expectations from the new home minister. Here are some issues on which Shah will have to take quick decisions. One is Article 35 and the controversial demand by the BJP to scrap this provision which protects the unique demographic status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Another is the BJP and RSS push for the Citizenship Amendment Act under which Hindus from neighbouring countries can automatically become Indian citizens.
The third is the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The fourth is the long standing promise of a uniform civil code.
Shah will have his hands full dealing with time bombs ticking away around the country: Kashmir, terrorism, Maoist attacks, to name a few. But be sure he will not function in the usual mould of a home minister. Amit Shah has already shown what he is capable of in his years as BJP president.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)