One of the focus points of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rural India. Halfway into his term, he is now a man in a hurry, as many of the government's projects for the rural areas—be it housing or employment or the Gram Sadak Yojana—have yet to show results. Modi wanted a minister with proven skills in delivering rural development programmes, so he has picked Narendra Singh Tomar as minister for rural development, panchayati raj, and drinking water and sanitation. Tomar had proved himself as a successful rural development and panchayati raj minister in Madhya Pradesh.
Tomar was steel minister before the Union cabinet reshuffle on July 5. He swapped his place with Birender Singh, whose only failure possibly was not seeing the land bill through. That, however, was not the reason for the switch; according to a BJP leader, “results will be visible” in Tomar's case.
Tomar almost explained why he had landed the job. “The real development of India is closely linked to the development of rural India,” he said. “There are lots of programmes launched by the prime minister that have to be implemented in totality to transform rural India. That is why the big budget allocation for rural regeneration.”
BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said it was Tomar's work which made the prime minister bring him to oversee an area that was crucial for the party and the country. “With Tomar having delivered on this portfolio in Madhya Pradesh, there is that extra ounce of confidence in him,” said another BJP leader.
Like Tomar, many of the major portfolio rejigs in the cabinet reshuffle have been with a purpose, as time is running short and people want to see the Modi impact clearer. While the cabinet expansion appears to have been an exercise with an eye on the upcoming assembly elections, and even the next Lok Sabha polls, the reshuffling of portfolios is what will change governance in the direction that Modi wants. Exactly a week after the expansion and reshuffling, the prime minister demonstrated that ministers will be akin to bureaucrats, with transfers and even retirement.
G.M. Siddeshwara, minister of state for heavy industries and public enterprise, was eased out for not being up to the mark. Najma Heptulla, minister for minority affairs, was gently reminded of the prime minister's idea of the age limit of 75 years for ministers, and she made way for Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Singer-turned-politician Babul Supriyo, who was minister of state for urban development, replaced Siddeshwara. “The MoS will be by and large guided by the prime minister, as we all will be,” said Venkaiah Naidu, who got the information and broadcasting ministry and lost urban development, when asked about the many ministers of state with important portfolios.
Prakash Javadekar, who replaced Smriti Irani as minister for human resources development, started with a gentle touch meant to heal wounds and assuage hurt feelings. If Irani had stoutly defended the police action against students on campuses, Javadekar showed up as a champion of campus rebellions. In an interaction with the media, he pointed out that he himself was a product of student agitation, and said quiet campuses did not mean creativity or life.
THE FIRST POINT he raised when he met the staff was urgent geotagging of all educational institutions so that they could identify underserved areas. He directed them to get the SWAYAM initiative, based on the massive open online courses model, which was launched by the prime minister last August. He sought a status report of items pending with the Prime Minister's Office—world class institutes, the IIM bill, the IIT bill and Wi-Fi for 38 central universities. Then he touched the contentious issues—appointments and nominations to fill vacancies in many institutions and the launch of IITs. Javadekar knows if the doable jobs are done on priority, the list will become much shorter. Hence happened Wi-Fi on campuses, which had been approved eight months ago.
Irani is said to have cancelled a review meeting that the PMO had wanted her to hold three days before the reshuffle. “She will be seen in Uttar Pradesh during the election campaign, and she will oversee the textile park in Varanasi, where a Bunkar Udyog is planned,” said S.S. Chikkara, a BJP leader in the state. Anyway Modi had to address the 'incompatibility' between Irani and the HRD ministry, given the controversies she landed the government, the party and herself in. “If PM wants something done, and a ministry does not do it, he naturally changes the minister and he knows the new incumbent will do it,” said a BJP leader. “All the ministers had one task, one common goal, which is to deliver on what the PM wants for the country, be it in education, health, trade, foreign policy or rural development.”
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the new law minister, has to grapple with the contentious issue of judicial appointments. “We will strive to find a common ground between the judiciary and the government. We respect the independence of the judiciary. We will work in harmony definitely,” said Prasad, himself a lawyer and known to have an informal connect with people in the bar and bench. His predecessor, D.V. Sadananda Gowda, spent a lot of time in his home state Karnataka. “This work had to be given to someone who is here and here only, has the energy and drive to accomplish it,” said a party leader.
In taking away parliamentary affairs and giving him information and broadcast, was Modi conveying something to Venkaiah Naidu about his style or work? Apparently, he continues to be regarded as a much treasured leader and a talented minister. But his successor in the parliamentary affairs ministry, Ananth Kumar, is likely to do business in a different way, with the very same goal of breaking parliamentary logjams and getting bills passed.
Naidu's quick repartees and caustic comments had angered the Congress so much that its leadership could remember only the jibes whenever the minister reached out. Ananth Kumar, on the other hand, is quiet and gentle, and is expected to build new bridges. Soft approach is also the experienced S.S. Ahluwalia's strongpoint and it landed him the job of the MoS for parliamentary affairs. “Both are indicative of Modi realising that aggression with the opposition does not help,” said a leader.
ANIL MADHAV DAVE spent his entire life protesting big dams, particularly in the Narmada. After he became member of the Rajya Sabha, the environment conservationist spoke out loud and clear on issues like cow slaughter, sewage treatment plants and cleaning rivers. On his first day as minister of state with independent charge of environment, Dave told journalists that he was happy that he could continue with what he had been passionately doing. Pragmatically, however, he added it was too soon to spell out the difference he would make to the environment ministry.
“The fact that he was an activist, and will now be in charge of protecting environment and yet ensuring that development happens, is a great idea,” said Narasimha Rao. “He will bring ideas from both sides of the fence, and a huge hands-on experience. His views will be reflected in the policies, and the way he handles it will make the difference.”
From style to speed, and everything that comes in between, will see a change after the cabinet reshuffle, though the goals will remain what the PMO sets.