Prime Ministers expand or reshuffle their Cabinet for a variety of reasons. Their decisions have little to do with merit and almost everything is to do with politics.
Rajiv Gandhi had a brute majority and used it to toy with his ministers. He rewarded loyalists and punished those out of favour with painful regularity, setting a record of 23 reshuffles in just 38 months.
Atal Behari Vajpayee was forever under pressure to balance the demands of his party and his coalition partners. He was not as whimsical as Gandhi but still ended up shuffling his pack eight times in the five years he was in office. The last time was a few months before the general election and earned him brickbats for using the tool of Cabinet expansion to re-induct just two people. Both were allies who had proved to be untrustworthy but who had to be accommodated for electoral reasons.
Manmohan Singh shifted his ministers around once, if not twice, every year in his second term as his government sank into a morass of corruption scandals and policy paralysis. He went in a for a big bang shakeup in 2012 in a desperate bid to boost his sagging image. It didn’t help, so he effected yet another reshuffle a year later with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
Narendra Modi’s Cabinet is Usually Lean
Narendra Modi followed the footsteps of his predecessors in his first term by expanding and revamping his team three times. The first reshuffle took place within six months of assuming office in 2014. In the second, he pushed the numbers to the constitutionally mandated upper limit of 78 to silence the restless and dissatisfied in his ranks, just like Manmohan Singh had done in 2012.
Modi’s thumping victory for a second term in 2019 saw him assert himself to reign in his party and coalition partners. He inducted a lean team of 57 ministers, excluded his allies and declined to fill vacancies as they arose. The strength of his ministry is down to 53 today. But the one-and-a-half man band government run by Modi through his PMO and Man Friday Amit Shah’s home ministry didn’t seem to need ministers to function.
Why Modi Needs a Reshuffle Now
Halfway into his second tenure, the political landscape has shifted and Modi in 2021 is not the Modi of 2019 who was flush with a historic win. Farmers in north India are up in arms against a set of new agricultural laws. COVID has burst the government’s bubble and dented Modi’s popularity.
Mamata Banerjee’s stunning victory in the West Bengal Assembly polls gave the BJP a bloody nose and proved to be a personal blow for Modi after his high-voltage intensive campaign in the state. And the mother of all elections – the UP state polls – is looming on the horizon amid daily COVID horror stories, farmer dissatisfaction, law and order disarray and unexpected losses for the BJP in the recent panchayat polls.
For the first time since he swept back to power with a bigger mandate than in his first term, Modi is feeling the heat to do what most Prime Ministers in the past have done: Accommodate and compromise with a Cabinet expansion and a reshuffle of portfolios.
The complexion of the expected changes will reveal a lot about the compulsions that are making Modi feel vulnerable today. Here are a few signals to watch out for.
Will Modi Make the Allies Happy Now?
One is whether or not Modi will include allies. In 2019, he ignored them completely, leading to much heartburn, particularly in Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), which felt insulted that the PM didn’t offer the party a Cabinet berth.
But with UP polls knocking at the door and the NDA in Bihar going through a rough patch, there seems to be a rethink with the Modi-Shah duo reaching out to alliance partners as claimants line up outside their doors.
One such hopeful is Ram Vilas Paswan’s brother Ram Chandra Paswan, who recently threw out his nephew Chirag and walked off with five of the six LJP MPs in the Lok Sabha. BJP circles see this as a sign that LJP may find a place in Modi’s new council of ministers.
Another is Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal. She was a minister in Modi’s first term but the PM overlooked her in 2019 following adverse reports of her performance and behaviour. But political compulsions in UP and the sizeable Kurmi vote she commands prompted Amit Shah to invite her for a one-on-one meeting recently. This has led to speculation that a ministerial post may be in the offing.
Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) is also waiting in the wings. And this time, Modi may have to agree to at least one Cabinet post for Nitish’s nominee. If he does, it would suggest that Modi is on the backfoot and is making an effort to be more humble with his partners.
Which BJP Aspirant Will Modi Reward the Best?
The second thing to watch out for is who among the long line of the BJP aspirants is brought into the Modi ministry. The one who has waited the longest for a Cabinet berth is Jyotiraditya Scindia, who helped to bring down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh last summer by crossing the floor to join the BJP with his loyalists. He was rewarded for his effort with a Rajya Sabha berth but has been waiting for the second part of his reward – a Cabinet assignment – for the longest time.
Then, there is Sarbanand Sonowal who had to make way for Himanta Biswa Sarma as Assam Chief Minister on the assurance that he would get something in Delhi. Will he make the grade?
Let’s not forget TMC turncoat Suvendu Adhikari. Although the BJP underperformed in the West Bengal polls, Adhikari is riding high for defeating Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram and emerging as a giant killer. He has been appointed Leader of Opposition in the Bengal Assembly but it seems he is pitching hard for a ministerial reward for either father Sisir or brother Dibyendu. Both are Lok Sabha MPs who were elected on Trinamool Congress tickets but have since joined the BJP.
Modi will also have to factor in the ongoing rebellion in Karnataka where a faction of BJP MLAs is pushing for Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to be replaced. BJP circles feel that either Yediyurappa will shift to the Centre or some rebels will be accommodated in the Modi government.
Upcoming Elections in Various States Might Force Modi’s Hand
A third factor in Modi’s Cabinet plans is the upcoming Assembly polls next year, starting with UP, Goa, Punjab, Manipur and Uttarakhand in the first half, and Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in the second half. Obviously, if there is going to be an expansion, political equations including caste and community considerations in these states will play an important role.
A Cabinet expansion or reshuffle is also expected in UP where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is under pressure to obey Delhi’s diktats, share the fishes and loaves of office with local party leaders and workers and find something for Jitin Prasada who left the Congress recently to join the BJP.
The air is thick with speculation that Modi will make his big move just before the monsoon session of Parliament opens in mid-July. But political circles also recall that moment in his first term when Modi categorically denied that he would expand his Cabinet. He told a group of editors during an informal meeting that he had not even thought about making changes in his ministry. That firm statement of his scotched further chatter about a reshuffle.
Two days later, Modi did his first Cabinet expansion and inducted a whole lot of people into his ministry, including the late Manohar Parrikar as defence minister and Suresh Prabhu as railways minister. The media was stunned, as were BJP circles.
The moral of the story is that Modi keeps his cards close to his chest. So, for all the flurry of activity and talk, a Cabinet expansion will happen only when it happens.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. 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.)