Smriti Irani, who played the dutiful bahu (daughter-in-law) in one of India’s longest television soaps, had annoyed and humiliated a number of people, regardless of their station, when they had work with her human resource development ministry. Some of them took the matter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But, to no avail.
When talk of a cabinet reshuffle came up, it was widely believed that the headstrong Smriti would either be dropped or be despatched to do some organisational work. But, while reallocating the portfolios after a cabinet expansion on July 5, Smriti was honourably retained as a cabinet rank minister, albeit of the seemingly lightweight textile ministry.
This means Smriti will have enough time to launch a robust attack on Congress leader Priyanka Vadra, in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, “possibly as early as next week”, remarked BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra. “She is hardworking and will shine in any ministry. It simply cannot be a demotion, but the idea will be to use her talent fully,” he said.
If Modi had wanted to drop her from the cabinet, nobody would have stopped him, said a party leader, quite confident that she had been handpicked for a “very big role” in Uttar Pradesh. “She can even be the face of the party there,” the leader said. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, whose name had come up for that role, has preferred to stay in Delhi.
Sadananda Gowda may have lost the law ministry, but he was given charge of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, which is said to be prized by the prime minister. Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad got charge of the law ministry at a juncture where the judicial and legislative pillars are negotiating their boundaries.
Prakash Javadekar, who held independent charge of environment as minister of state, had impressed Modi with his work on climate change. But, when he was elevated to the cabinet rank, he got the HRD ministry, which is seen as more important.
The information and broadcasting ministry, held by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, was given to Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu. This was done to allow Jaitley to focus on making the economy grow and “take it to 9 per cent of the GDP at the earliest,” said a party source.
Along with these changes, Modi inducted 19 new ministers and dropped five junior ministers. And, there were indications that Shah would do the same with the party.
Almost halfway into the five-year term of his government, Modi was under no pressure to expand his cabinet. In fact, ahead of the celebration of two years of the government, Shah said the team was good enough, and he did not see any reason to change it.
Said party spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao: “The whole idea is to deliver and perform better. Also, it is an exercise to act as a bridge and take the message of the government to the people and bring in the expectations of the public to the government.”
BJP insiders said the expansion was Modi's decision and was need-based. “More than once, he has asked the MPs to go to their constituencies or to a couple of states to spread the message of the work being done by the government,” said one of them. “Having more ministers working in the government and spreading the word across the country, he said, was a better idea. And, so the expansion.”
A day before the announcement, Modi had himself said it was not a “change in cabinet, but an expansion”, and attributed it to the work that had to be accomplished based on the 2016-17 budget. He specifically spoke of work to be done in the agricultural sector and in the development of women, children and the weaker sections. Effectively, Modi felt there was need for more political supervision of the work.
A confidant of Modi said the expansion marked “a firm departure from the usual routine of frequent changes based on caste, religion and other political considerations. This is a firm endorsement of the brand of developmental politics that the prime minister champions.”
The cabinet expansion will also support Shah's expansionist ideas for the BJP. Apparently, Shah and Modi kept an eye on all their MPs under 75, with Shah assessing their political clout and Modi getting independent assessment of their work, in government and at the grassroots level. It was an “exhaustive vetting and selection process to find the best talent,” said a BJP leader. The bottom line, it seems, was—what value they would bring to the cabinet, and what they would deliver in terms of development and good governance. To this, Modi added gaon, garib aur kisan (villages, the poor and farmers), which are priorities he has recently talked about. “This is a team with experience, expertise and energy,” he said.
Yes, they all are experienced. Even Anupriya Singh Patel—a first-time MP who represents Mirzapur on an Apna Dal ticket—has been an MLA. As have 13 others. Vijay Goel, a many-time MP who is now in the Rajya Sabha, was a minister in the prime minister's office in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In fact, 11 of the new entrants were, at some point, ministers in states or at the Centre.
The prime minister's office and leaders in the party have played up the educational qualifications of some of the new faces. One of them, Subhash Ram Rao Bhamre, is a well-known cancer surgeon. Another, P.P. Chaudhary, is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court with rich experience in constitutional affairs.
Moreover, these new entrants bring with them tremendous political power, which could help the BJP fulfil its dream of making India one big lotus pond. The party will go all out to win the Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur assembly elections next year, and Gujarat, where elections are due in January 2018.
Anupriya, who has OBC roots, could woo the community as well as women voters in Uttar Pradesh. Mahendra Nath Pandey has been minister for housing, urban development, planning and panchayati raj in Uttar Pradesh, and is also a Brahmin face for the party. Darjeeling MP S.S. Ahluwalia brings tremendous expertise in dealing with parliamentary logjams, especially the kind the BJP faces in the Rajya Sabha. Though from Patna, he is the party's Sikh face and could play an important role in the Punjab elections.
But to read “the expansion as intended entirely to win Uttar Pradesh would be stretching the truth”, said a party spokesperson. He joked that if assembly elections could be won by packing the Union government with MPs from that state, the BJP had 71 MPs in Uttar Pradesh who could take over the cabinet.
It seems the real fix for winning the state, however, will come when Shah rejigs the party.