On September 4, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook his third cabinet reshuffle in three years, most of the newly appointed ministers hurried to take charge of their portfolios. For, it was the last day of an auspicious window as per the Hindu calendar. The following day, September 5, marked the beginning of shradh—the traditional, 15-day period of remembrance.
One inductee even went to the extent of bringing four priests to his office to launch his new assignment. Most ministers talked of completing projects and sticking to deadlines. They would get little more than a year before the government goes into campaign mode for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
With the kind of political appointments that have taken place in recent times, Modi has stolen a march on opposition parties, which are still trying to weave a coherent narrative against the government. First, it was the choice of president (Ram Nath Kovind) and vice president (Venkaiah Naidu). Then came the appointment of trusted bureaucrats to key posts (Rajiv Mehrishi as comptroller and auditor general and Sunil Arora as election commissioner). Now, with the cabinet reshuffle, Modi has shown that his focus is firmly on improving governance. To tide over the apparent talent deficit in his cabinet, Modi has inducted four bureaucrats. Two of them—ministers of state Hardeep Singh Puri (housing and urban affairs) and K.J. Alphons (tourism and information technology)—are not even members of Parliament.
Springing surprises has been a hallmark of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s working style. This time, too, they stayed true to it by not keeping allies like the Janata Dal (United), the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal in the reshuffle loop. Political considerations took a back seat as Modi, like he had done in his second cabinet rejig in July 2016, chose to reward performers and drop laggards.
Five ministers of state were axed last year. This time, it was six—Kalraj Mishra (micro, small and medium enterprises), Bandaru Dattatreya (labour), Rajiv Pratap Rudy (skill development and entrepreneurship), Faggan Singh Kulaste (health and family welfare), Sanjeev Kumar Balyan (water resources and Ganga rejuvenation) and Mahendra Nath Pandey (housing and urban development).
Shah and BJP general secretary Ram Lal were entrusted with the task of securing the required resignations. The six ministers were called to Shah’s Delhi residence and were asked to resign in an hour. Only Pandey was immediately rehabilitated as president of the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit. He replaced Keshav Prasad Maurya, who is deputy chief minister. Mishra and Dattatreya could be dispatched to Raj Bhawans, while others may be assigned organisational duties.
The caste balance in the cabinet was largely preserved in the reshuffle. R.K. Singh (minister of state, power) replaced fellow Rajput Rudy; Brahmin Shiv Pratap Shukla (minister of state, finance) stepped into the breach left by Pandey and Mishra; and Satya Pal Singh replaced Balyan, a fellow Jat.
All eyes are now on Shah, who is expected to fill vacant positions in the party apparatus. Shah’s election to the Rajya Sabha comes as an added advantage to the government, as he would now directly oversee the performance of party Mps.
If the highlight of the 2016 rejig was the removal of Smriti Irani as HRD minister, this time it is the surprise elevation of first-time MP Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister. Sitharaman is only the second woman to hold the portfolio, and the first to do so full time. Earlier, prime minister Indira Gandhi had twice held it as additional charge.
Interestingly, even before the cabinet reshuffle was announced, the RSS had called Arun Jaitley, who was holding the defence portfolio as additional charge, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss its concerns regarding national security. By appointing a full-time defence minister, Modi has reportedly allayed the fears of the Sangh. “It is remarkable that a woman has been appointed as defence minister,” said RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya. “Now there will be two female ministers in the cabinet committee on security.” Apart from Sitharaman, the committee comprises Jaitley, Rajnath and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Modi also promoted Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who were ministers of state earlier, to cabinet rank. Ministers of State Rajyavardhan Rathore, Giriraj Singh, Santosh Singh Gangwar were given independent charges.
Goyal, who earned praise from Modi for having succeeded at generating surplus power, would now be required to turn around the railways’ fortunes. “I learnt about the power sector from [outgoing railway minister] Suresh Prabhu,” he said. “He has been my mentor. Now, I would carry forward his plans.” Prabhu is now in charge of commerce and industry, a portfolio earlier held by Sitharaman.
Pradhan was promoted for making a huge success of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which aims at providing LPG connection to families below poverty line. The scheme had helped the BJP reap rich dividends in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
Pradhan has now been tasked with generating skilled manpower and creating jobs, which Rudy had tried and failed to do. Sources said what worked against Rudy was the ministry publicly admitting that it would not achieve its target of skilling five crore people. Pradhan will be assisted by Minister of State Anantkumar Hegde, a five-time MP from Karnataka.
The reshuffle has also shown that Modi is willing to let specialists do the job. He put R.K. Singh, MP and former IAS officer, in charge of the power ministry, while former IPS officer Satya Pal Singh has been appointed minister of state in the HRD ministry. But the selection of Hardeep Singh Puri and K.J. Alphons has set tongues wagging in the BJP. Many think it has come at the cost of hardworking MPs. No one, however, has dared come out against the decision, fearing Modi and Shah.
Sources in the BJP said both Puri and Alphons serve a political purpose. Urban affairs, Puri’s portfolio, has significant stake in development projects in Delhi. He is likely to emerge as the Sikh face in the government, a measure aimed at wooing the Delhi electorate. Interestingly, another Sikh, S.S. Ahluwalia, was divested of the parliamentary affairs portfolio. Alphons’s elevation is aimed at extending a hand of friendship to the Christian community in Kerala, where the BJP is trying to increase its presence.
Those who were earlier considered close to the L.K. Advani-Rajnath-Sushma camp appear to have lost out in the reshuffle. Vijay Goel, who was embroiled in several controversies, was demoted to minister of state for water resources, Ganga rejuvenation and parliamentary affairs. Rudy was also considered part of this camp, and so was Ahluwalia.
Uma Bharti, who failed in her much-hyped mission to clean the Ganga, was able to hold on to her cabinet post. But she was divested of the Ganga rejuvenation portfolio and was given charge of the ministry of sanitation and drinking water. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, considered one of the better performing ministers, has been given additional charge of cleaning the Ganga.
“We will form a task force,” said Gadkari. “We will come out with a schedule of targets to be achieved under the mission in a week. We will try to realise Modi’s dreams in a time-bound, transparent manner.”
Before the cabinet reshuffle, Modi had been quietly overhauling the bureaucracy, making several new appointments to key posts and holding meetings with additional and joint secretaries of all departments. He has been urging officials to streamline delivery of services and has sought their inputs on ways to improve governance.
All new appointees, bureaucrats as well as ministers, have been told to focus on one main task: Making the government look good in the run-up to the 2019 elections.