It took a raging world pandemic, a battered economy, and the first headwinds of electoral insecurity for Narendra Modi to realize that running the government cannot be remote controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — and that ministers cannot be rubber stamps of the pradhan sevak with a mythic 56-inch chest.
The induction of 43 new faces and dismissal of 12 making for a jumbo ministry of 77 is a tacit admission that the old team was severely short on talent. Not because there was none available for love or money but because of the PM’s reluctance to trust anyone with knowledge and intellect coupled with the proclivity to give his home state, Gujarat, primacy in the pickings.
A generous mix of professional ability and political heft is imperative to grapple with national crises of any nature, especially of the magnitude of covid. Truth to tell no career politician other than Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal is professionally capable in the current Modi dispensation. Neither is a favorite of the PM. Goyal would have made the perfect successor to Arun Jaitley at Finance, but Modi preferred the malleable Nirmala Sitharaman who can be likened to a square peg in a round hole.
Hardeep S. Puri and S. Jaishankar were imports from the Indian Foreign Service. Jaishankar was roped in to take charge of External Affairs immediately after superannuation as foreign secretary given his adaptability and rapport with successive regimes at the Centre.
Ex-diplomat Puri proved no less worthy as minister of state (MoS) with independent charge of Housing and Urban Affairs. Critics point to his failure to find a buyer for Air India as Civil Aviation minister, but it is churlish to make him personally responsible for it. The July 7 reboot saw him shifted to Petroleum and Natural Gas with full cabinet rank while retaining Housing and Urban Affairs.
Modi’s problem, right from his days as Gujarat chief minister, is that he has always been a control freak which in itself is not a bad thing so long as you know whom to give a long rope. Competent managers need the autonomy to deliver.
The removal of Dr Harsha Vardhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, and Ramesh Pokhriyal was, indeed, the need of the hour. It is impossible to sift whether they fell short of expectations due to their own ineptitude or was it the fear of earning the displeasure of the pradhan sevak which came in the way of initiating bold decisions.
Javadekar, an old loyalist of Pramod Mahajan, is a classic case of a politician with neither the competence nor domain expertise in anything. Plum portfolios, nevertheless, kept falling in his lap. He was MoS with independent charge of a sensitive ministry like forests and environment, and briefly Information and Broadcasting (I&B) in Modi 1.0.
In 2016 the Marathi manoos was promoted to full cabinet rank with the charge of Human and Resource Development (HRD) before returning to I&B in 2019 when the Peter Principle caught up with him. He rose to his maximum level of incompetence. Anurag Thakur, with his nationalist credentials, will be a welcome replacement at I&B.
Health, which never got the attention it deserved in the last 70 years, was a sitting duck for disaster with the onset of the pandemic. Though the choice of Dr Harsha Vardhan, an ENT surgeon, was well made given his track record, Covid proved more than a match for his abilities.
With the world’s guns, rightly or wrongly, trained on Modi’s failure to foresee the second wave despite warnings, the constant cross-talk from AIIMS chief Randeep Guleria and big cat surgeons like Medanta boss Naresh Trehan among others cannot but have exacerbated the tensions of the health minister. Though Niti Aayog member (health), Dr V.K. Paul, tried defending the government in the face of relentless shelling from the media, the good doctor’s goose was as good as cooked. He was the natural fall guy.
His replacement, Mansukh Mandavia (50), is a hardcore Modi loyalist from Gujarat with no pretensions of being a medical genius. In fact, as a certified veterinary livestock inspector, his interest may have been more in the four-legged specie rather than humans.
Mandavia’s track record as a go-getter MLA and sometime chairman of the Gujarat Agro-Industries Corporation Ltd. earned him a berth in the Union ministry with multiple charges as MoS: Road Transport and Highways as well as Shipping, Chemicals and Fertilizers. His focus will be on setting goals and ensuring delivery rather than court publicity.
Of the four big changes, the most sought after was that of Law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, a stuffed shirt seen to growl more than act. Quite apart from proving ineffective in dealing with the apex court’s attempts to encroach on the Executive, the minister invited public anger for his utter failure to act against Twitter despite multiple “last warnings” that defiance of indigenous laws would invite penalties.
The general perception is that Prasad’s failure to haul Twitter over the coals had much to do with Modi’s own disinclination to lose his large following on a social platform which remains a powerful tool for self-promotion.
Again, to be fair to Prasad, his supposed shortcomings at Law cannot be entirely delinked from the PM’s penchant to chicken out of sticky situations by shifting executive responsibility to the top court, be it during the Shaheen Bagh sit-in or the farmers’ agitation.
Prasad has two successors, one at Law and Justice and another at Information Technology. Stepping into the former will be the soft-spoken Kiran Rijuju. His assignment at Vidhi Mantralaya is a far cry from Sports and will be an acid test of his competence. Ideally the ministry should have gone to the Delhi-based lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi who was appointed MoS, External Affairs and Culture instead.
The bulk of the media’s attention, however, is being showered on Prasad’s Jodhpur born successor at IT, Ashwani Vaishnaw. The ex-IAS officer of the Orissa cadre and alumnus of IIT (Kanpur) and Wharton Business School alumnus is clearly one of a kind. Many are the hats he has worn in his multifaceted career: sometime corporate honcho, sometime entrepreneur, and now Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha. He is the second minister after Jaishankar to be given full cabinet rank without any prior experience.
Trusted by both Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik and Modi, he was part of the PMO during A B Vajpayee’s PMO and retained as his private secretary after the NDA’s shock defeat in 2004. Vaishnaw came into Modi’s contact in 2012 while setting up two auto components manufacturing units in Gujarat. Not many are aware that it was the BJD which had initially nominated him to the RS. He switched parties after a last-minute understanding between Patnaik and Modi in 2019.
A flashy CV and easy political equations, however, cannot guarantee success. Failure to deal with Twitter in the coming weeks will only confirm that it is Modi’s lack of political will which is the real stumbling block. All the more since the judiciary has left it to the government to discipline the errant micro blogging entity.
Ditto is the case with Dharmendra Pradhan’s new job at Education. Though he lacks the intellectual capital for the job, his superb record of delivering Modi’s pet scheme, Ujjwala, to the masses encouraged the PM to throw a greater challenge before him: conjoin education with skill development to improve the employment potential of youth.
Pradhan’s mettle will also be tested on whether he is given a free hand in changing the contents of school textbooks on history which continue to glorify Mughal rule. Plus, the overall primacy given to Bharat over India.
Cabinet reshuffles in the end are as much about delivery as ensuring success at the hustings. With polls due early next year in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand; and Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat in the second half, caste and regional equations needed to be reworked.
OBCs and SCs now comprise more than 50 per cent of the ministry. With the addition of seven new faces, U.P. now has a share of 16 ministers. Four each were inducted from Maharashtra, Bengal, Karnataka, and three from Gujarat.
The good thing is that the BJP’s interest in Bengal has not flagged despite the electoral drubbing early this year. Modi’s expanded team has four new entrants from the Trinamool ruled state, two of whom belong to the northern districts comprising Cooch Behar, Alipurdwar, and Jalpaiguri from where the saffron party reaped the richest harvest. 30 of the 77 seats it won came from the region.
Cooch Behar MP Nishith Pramanik will be MoS, Home Affairs and Sports and his counterpart from Alipurdwar, John Barla, MoS, Minority Affairs. To the latter goes the credit of winning the tribal dominated tea garden vote for the party.
It is evident that the BJP does not want to lose its support base among the Rajbongshis, an SC community which comprises 40 per cent of the electorate in North Bengal.
The Matuas, a religious SC sect of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, also stood by the BJP. The appointment of Bongaon MP Shantanu Thakur as MoS, Shipping and Waterways was the reward.
The success of Modi’s revamped team will necessarily depend on how much space he gives them. A lighter hand will help him govern better.
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