Modi's New Cabinet: Historic Reshuffle or Mere Damage Control?
Even though the buck stops at the top, smaller mortals had to pay the price for the government's indifference.
Although the Cabinet reshuffle is aimed at sending the message to people that the government addressed shortfalls in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the vicious second wave, the exercise ends up primarily being in the realm of political management.
Yet, even on that score, certain inclusions or portfolio allocations baffle and convey the sense of being made because there was no way out.
For instance, Virendra Kumar – he was a junior minister in Modi 1.0, but found no space in 2019. He was inducted into the Cabinet. Is it a case of desperately seeking social balance – because he is a Dalit and a 'replacement' for Thawarchand Gehlot?
While ministers holding charge of crucial ministries of health, labour, education, and social justice were dropped from the council of ministers, the finance minister has not been 'penalised' possibly because she is a woman. These ministries are among the frontline ones in the pandemic period.
Nirmala Sitharaman remains not just part of the Cabinet, but also the finance minister, even though the economy remains in doldrums.
But any action against her, even if her wings were clipped by being shifted to a 'less' important portfolio, would have blunted one of the Bharatiya Janata Party's spins, that this is a 'Mahilaon ki Sarkar' by virtue of having eleven women ministers.
As it is, the relatively faceless Debasree Chaudhuri from West Bengal was jettisoned to make way for politically more appropriate representatives from the state.
The reasoning of 'performance' being the cause for the dropping of Messrs Harsh Vardhan, Santosh Gangwar, and Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank' is paradoxical in a government noted for centralised decision-making with the majority of ministers either being mere file-pushers or supervisors to ensure implementation.
After realisation of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Prime Minister's Office directly took on all health-related matters on a daily basis.
The Centre further empowered itself under the Disaster Management Act that enabled it to ride roughshod over state governments and undermine India's federal character.
The axing of Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, a price they paid for the government's belligerent handling of leading social media and media intermediaries company is also inexplicable because it is tough to imagine these ministers following personal briefs.
Given that the ministers' exuberance could have been controlled earlier, their removal suggests that the government needed to find scapegoats in the face of mounting international pressure.
The two had to go for the same reason that the other three mentioned previously were axed.
Even though the buck stops at the top, smaller mortals had to pay the price for the government's ineptitude, indifference, and negligence – the exercise being a bid to douse public anger.
The Social Engineering Angle
Much has been made out of the fact that 'talent' and 'performance' have been recognised and rewarded. But in the pandemic period, the sole skill that new promotee Anurag Thakur displayed was to do what Vinod Dua did for Prannoy Roy in the early years of election coverage – a quick recap in Hindi of what was said in English.
Likewise, is Kiren Rijiju the new law minister for being a 'successful' minister for youth affairs and sports?
If the selection of those who were elevated was subjective, so too was the case of several who merited a position on the basis of their previous accomplishments, in politics as well as government. But here, too, as in the case of Sushil Modi, personal prejudice and past coldness played a role in their non-selection.
Besides the projected incapacity of the dropped ministers to 'rise to the occasion', there is also the social engineering angle that has to be kept in mind while unravelling the objective behind the entire exercise of reshuffling the prime ministerial pack.
Among the big names who were ejected from the council, barring Thawarchand Gehlot, all others are from the upper castes. This has to be framed against the conscious inclusion of several from the Scheduled and Other Backward Castes.
Before the conclusion of the ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the party informally circulated a background note proclaiming that the rejigged Cabinet would have twelve Dalits across twelve sub-communities (to underscore that the BJP does not empower just the already dominant sub-castes like other Dalit-specific parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party).
It was also publicised that the new council of ministers would include eight tribal members (across different tribes) and 27 ministers from the OBCs, of whom five are members in the Union Cabinet.
The aforesaid note highlighted that the unprecedented presence of 47 non-savarnas indicated that the refurbished team of Modi 2.0 made this government a regime of the socially marginal communities, or Gareebon ki, Peediton ki, Shoshiton ko, Vanchiton ki Sarkar (government of the poor, victimised, exploited, and deprived).
However, to avoid an upper caste backlash that would become more likely in the event of a Centre-like exercise in Uttar Pradesh in the coming days, the party's spin doctors are at pains to underscore that 29 ministers are from 'other communities' including Brahmin, Kshatriya, Baniya, Bhumihar, and Kayasth.
The alteration made in the primary caste and gender profile of the council of ministers would have possibly had a positive impact in 'normal' circumstances.
But it is difficult to predict the reaction in the stressed state that most people are, due to the impact of the pandemic. This is one aspect that will have to be assessed once it is possible to collect empirical data.
Will the Reshuffle Appease People in UP?
In the effort to get its social engineering 'right' in states where the party either faces challenges or where elections are due over the next couple of years, the prime minister and his aides decided to induct seven ministers from UP, four each from West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, three from Gujarat, and two each from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha.
The moot question is if people in the most crucial state of UP, which is due to vote in the first quarter of 2022, would be mollified with this exercise.
Inclusion of such a large contingent is certainly a sign of desperation and proves that there is a growing perception that the state government under Yogi Adityanath established social hegemony of Rajputs.
Not just the backward castes and Dalits, but even Brahmins are reportedly unhappy at the BJP for failing to rein in the chief minister. After having failed to retain social coalitions it built for 2017 and 2019 elections, will the last-ditch inclusion of OBC and Dalit ministers now be beneficial?
Furthermore, it has to be seen if Adityanath will allow the new central ministers a political role in the state and yield his territory that he successfully protected in the face of the central leadership's efforts to make alterations in his ministry.
The legacy of Modi 2.0 will be judged by future historians on the basis of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reshuffle, however, does not generate confidence because the talent base remains the same.
After much talk of getting talent from outside and technocrats, the inductees are from the same herd.
The only exception being the crucial Railways, Communications and Electronics & Information Technology ministries that were placed under the charge of Ashwini Vaishnaw, a former bureaucrat-turned-private sector professional, who became member of the Rajya Sabha with bipartisan backing.
The reshuffle is a politics-centric exercise and is unlikely to dramatically improve the government's image. To improve quality of governance, the thrust, to borrow Modi's phrase, must be to "go local". The pandemic has made decentralisation of government essential, even down to the sub-regional level in states.
But the reshuffle will convey to the party's foot soldiers the sense that Modi has erased the negative impression and come up with a new narrative – that of rebuilding broken ties and knitting new social coalitions. This exercise will give them hope that this leadership, too, has not been hit by policy paralysis, but still has the capacity to innovate.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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