In Cabinet Rejig, Jyotiraditya Scindia Short-changed With Aviation
Those who leave their parties for more saffron pastures have to serve an apprenticeship before they can be trusted.
Last year, when Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he did not just bring the state of Madhya Pradesh - having helped to topple the Kamal Nath-led government in the state, as an oblation for his new bosses. He also had a whole host of other credentials guaranteed, or so it appeared, to ensure success.
He was a four-time Lok Sabha MP, with stints as a central minister, and chief whip (of the Congress parliamentary party). He has two well-established aunts in the BJP – Vasundhara Raje and Yashodhara Raje.
His grandmother, Vijayeraje Scindia, was one of the founders of the BJP, and once even a senior functionary in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Add to that the hauteur of a Maharaja with enviable educational qualifications – Doon School, St Stephen’s College, Harvard, culminating in an MBA from Stanford.
Few people in the BJP could match that CV in the BJP, you would say.
Why Did Scindia Get a Sinking, Dented Industry?
Not surprisingly, in the run-up to the recent recasting of the union council of ministers, Scindia’s name took precedence over all others, as TV hosts and guests sought to outguess each other on its final shape.
But in the end, Scindia, though elevated to the union cabinet, was given the civil aviation portfolio, not the most exciting job in 2021, with this sector being one of the worst hit by the pandemic.
With the decision already taken that the national carrier Air India will be 100 per cent disinvested (it has an accumulated debt of Rs 60,000 crore, according to Hardeep Singh Puri, the outgoing minister), business on private airlines and privatisation of airports devastated by the corona virus outbreak, Scindia will have to focus perhaps on UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik), the Prime Minister’s pet scheme to connect small towns, unserved and underserved airports on India's air map.
But UDAN, which was inaugurated in 2017, never quite took off and the current pandemic and economic crisis will make it that much harder to fix things there.
What did the Young Scion do Wrong and Ashwini Vaishnaw do Right?
Now, compare the job that Scindia has been given, with the range of tasks assigned to another 50-year-old, Ashwini Vaishnaw, a former IAS officer, who is now the new Minister of Railways, Communications and Electronics and Information Technology.
While Vaishnaw has virtually no political credentials, barring a brief stint in the Rajya Sabha of which he is a member currently, he does have degrees from IIT Kanpur and Wharton, apart from his experience as an entrepreneur after he took premature retirement from government service.
But what he has – that Scindia lacks - is that even while in service as an IAS officer, he had begun to cultivate the BJP's top brass, earning their trust.
He already has a track record. In 2003, Vaishnaw moved to Delhi from Odisha – his parent cadre in the IAS – as Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years.
When Vajpayee lost the general elections in 2004, he became his private secretary and, subsequently, met several BJP leaders who are now in charge. Crucially, the current Prime Minister, Modi, was one of them. That clearly made the difference. To understand why the BJP’s top leadership has entrusted Vaishnaw with weightier portfolios than Scindia who clearly has better credentials, one only has to take a closer look at how the party operates.
The BJP Rewards Those That Benefit the Party
Take the case of Himanta Biswa Sarma, the 52-year-old chief minister of Assam.
He joined the BJP from the Congress in 2015: unhappy with the way he had been treated by Rahul Gandhi and upset that the party did not see him as the obvious successor to the late Tarun Gogoi - as chief minister - he crossed over. He led the BJP's successful state election campaign in 2016, but was only made a Cabinet Minister under the relatively less experienced Sarbananda Sonowal.
The BJP then appointed Sarma as the convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a regional sub-group of the federal National Democratic Alliance (NDA), aimed at increasing the party's political strength in north-east India.
The BJP finally “rewarded” him earlier this year, after he had not just delivered Assam but virtually the entire north-east to the party.
Or take the case of Chaudhury Birendra Singh who left the Congress for the BJP in 2014. He was made the Union minister for Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation in the first Modi government. He was given the job at the time to woo the Jats – Birendra Singh is not just former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s first cousin, he is also the grandson of the Jat community most revered leader, Sir Chhotu Ram. But he failed to deliver on the Land Acquisition Bill, and was shifted to the Steel Ministry in 2016 and finally eased out of government in 2019.
Those who leave their parties for the more saffron pastures of the BJP have to serve out an apprenticeship before they can be entirely trusted.
Former civil servants like Vaishnaw have an advantage – they have not only proved their “loyalty” while in government, they are unlikely to develop a political base (unlike Scindia who has support on the ground) that could prove to be a threat at any point to the leadership.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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