Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 2.0 council of ministers is the handiwork of a pragmatic politician. Like the adjective, drawn from the Greek word 'pragma' or deed, it describes a worldview of "doing what works best" – Modi believes in pursuing nothing but the path to success.
This may often, as in his case, be at variance with the words he uses to convey that he unwaveringly follows the course of principles. But the vocabulary he draws on while broadcasting messages to the public is used merely as a tool to solve problems impeding his objective and in expanding his hold on the people.
Modi’s words have mostly been used to camouflage his real intent. This time too it is no different.
Two days after shepherding the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an astounding electoral victory, he had said ‘let bygones be bygones’. He had also said that in a nation of 1.3 billion, he, as de facto chief of the ruling party, could not "differentiate between anyone". He added the party could no longer, "differentiate on the basis caste and religion or region.
“We have shown how to achieve Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (development for all) and now we have to win Sabka Vishwas (trust of all). We are for the people who trusted us and those whose trust we need to win.”PM Modi, in his speech after winning Lok Sabha polls
No Place in Cabinet for Offensive Assertions Directed at Minorities?
If people still thought he was speaking in generalities, Modi could not have been more specific: He said that after his government's focus on the poor and socially weaker sections, this time the emphasis has to be "towards winning the hearts of minorities." Taken in the backdrop of the "never will be able to forgive her" declaration in the context of Pragya Singh Thakur, this was read as a hint that people who embraced infamy with offensive assertions directed at religious minorities would find no place in his council of ministers.
While Maneka Gandhi is out for her incendiary remarks during the electoral campaign, some other forgettable leaders, Giriraj Singh (paradoxically promoted from MoS with independent charge to Cabinet rank), Niranjan Jyoti and Sanjeev Balyan have been inducted into the ministry.
Of them, while Jyoti redeemed herself after minding her tongue following the admonishment in late 2014, Balyan is back in the saddle after being sacked for a none-too-impressive performance during the previous tenure.
The reasons are obvious: Maneka Gandhi cannot deliver a caste-based vote bank to the BJP, while the others can. In fact, in their robust defence in Parliament of Jyoti in 2015, Modi and Amit Shah highlighted her being a first-time woman MP from a backward community. In the social coalition that has been fabricated under Modi, support of the non-dominant OBC and Dalit communities are essential to breach the electoral embankments of regional parties like BSP, SP and RJD.
Dilemma Over Amit Shah’s Induction in Cabinet
That brings us to the big 'will he, won't he' question.
Ever since Shah took the place of Lal Krishna Advani as the party candidate from Gandhinagar, it was wondered if he would be inducted into the government to create a line of succession. If yes, the point of deliberation was his portfolio. The other bigger query was who would become BJP president.
This issue assumed significance because the BJP has metamorphosed in the past five years into a single-minded electoral machine with the sole aim of winning polls. The organisational network has been provided heft and runs on corporate lines with clear verticals. It was argued that the huge majority notwithstanding, much remained to be accomplished.
Assembly polls are due in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, and there is a possibility that the factors that stymied the party’s plans in the three Hindi heartland states in December last may once again bounce back – the BJP could face huge challenges on local issues and none-too-impressive performance of the state governments, especially in Haryana and Jharkhand. Additionally, there are huge challenges in Delhi and Bihar where state elections are due in 2020.
Given the BJP’s professed belief in the practice of ‘one-man, one-post’, it’s highly unlikely that Shah would continue as party chief beyond a few weeks.
BJP 2.0 As Much a Hegemon as in Modi's 1st Term
The new president (no certainty that JP Nadda would be appointed) is likely to have their hands full in regard to Bihar, as the alliance with the JD(U) appears to be following the path of the BJP's pact with the Shiv Sena immediately after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Back then, the two partners parted ways within months of the parliamentary elections. The BJP’s decision to contest polls separately bore fruit and it successfully wrested leadership of the alliance when the two parties reunited post polls.
A contrarian way of looking at Shah’s elevation is that by inducting him into government, Modi has effectively reduced the party president to being one among equals.
In the cabinet hierarchy, he is one notch below Rajnath Singh and although he would be member of both CCS and CPA. Whether there is any truth in this proposition or not, Modi has certainly stymied chances of the party becoming an alternate power centre.
The inability of the BJP to convince JD(U) to join the government was bad optics and underscored that impression that Modi's assertion of coalitions being important in his governance plan was mere lip-service. In fact, the BJP’s inability to convince Nitish Kumar to join the ministry establishes that the BJP is as much of a hegemon as it was in Modi's first term.
It can be deduced that the NDA remains only in name and anyone expecting regular coordination meetings to deliberate on policy matters, will be sadly mistaken.
S Jaishankar as Cabinet Minister: Bold Move That Could Raise Eyebrows
In 2014, Modi drew criticism for failing to induct urgently required talent from outside the party. In the past five years, some concessions were made and former bureaucrats and diplomats like Hardeep Puri, RK Singh and KJ Alphons were inducted into the council of ministers. The dramatic move of inducting S Jaishankar as cabinet minister – ironically, he was Puri's junior in the IFS – is both a bold move as well as one which raises eyebrows.
It’s such a bold move because Modi has inducted a professional with experience in handling the two most tricky bilateral ties – with Washington and Beijing, straddling the worlds of diplomacy and trade with the ability to pick new subjects.
Jaishankar’s initiation into politics could also result in a minor tempest if critics begin flagging the issue of conflict of interest, because a retired bureaucrat invariably has definitive views.
This will be sharply in focus if he is given charge of the foreign ministry. Often, former bureaucrats who are inducted into government are not immediately given charge of ministries they handled while in service. It may be recalled that when Rajiv Gandhi inducted K Natwar Singh in 1984, he was initially made MoS and charged with steel, coal and mines, and agriculture. External affairs was handed to him later, but only as MoS initially.
In his acceptance speech after being formally elected as leader of the NDA, Modi unveiled yet another acronym: NARA, literally a slogan for National Ambition, Regional Aspiration.
But at the end of his more than two-hour swearing-in ceremony, Modi did not have cabinet ministers to show from several states including West Bengal and Haryana. Women are also underrepresented, especially because Sushma Swaraj has dropped and Maneka Gandhi has been axed.
This shortfall and inability to induct talented women does not speak highly of Modi's gender priorities.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached at@NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)