Modi 3.0 offers a sense of continuity as PM rewards good performers

Ministers were picked and portfolios allotted to ward off any signs of change

PTI06_10_2024_000238B Fresh start: Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs the first meeting of his new cabinet on June 10 | PTI

IF POLITICAL EXPERIENCE was the measure to evaluate the 30 cabinet ministers chosen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his third government, Ashwini Vaishnaw would be considered a newbie. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar beats him by two years in seniority as he was sworn in as cabinet minister in 2019. Vaishnaw, a former IAS officer with degrees from IIT Kanpur and Wharton Business School, was first inducted into the Union cabinet in July 2021. The two lateral entries into politics―Jaishankar and Vaishnaw―have again made it big.

Modi has picked his ministers and allotted portfolios to ward off any signs of change even when the BJP could not get a majority on its own.

Jaishankar continues to be part of the group of four powerful ministers who constitute the cabinet committee on security, along with Rajnath Singh as defence minister, Amit Shah as home minister and Nirmala Sitharaman as finance minister. However, it is Vaishnaw who has emerged as the rising star in the new government.

Modi rewarded Vaishnaw for the hard work and skill he showed in managing governance as well as elections. He served as co-in charge of Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP scored impressive wins in the assembly and the Lok Sabha polls. He also handled publicity and election management during the Lok Sabha polls and helped draft the BJP’s election manifesto. Rajnath Singh, who headed the manifesto panel, singled out Vaishnaw for his hard work in “collating massive information, studying suggestions and finally bringing them in an orderly form”.

In June last year, Vaishnaw spent several days at the site of a major train accident in Balasore in Odisha, overseeing rescue operations. His experience as an IAS officer in the same district during the 1999 cyclone helped. As Modi embarks on his third term, relying on the support of allies such as Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), H.D. Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular) and Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), Vaishnaw may have to do the firefight again, especially in dealing with an emboldened opposition.

Apart from his previous portfolios of railways and IT, he will handle the crucial information and broadcasting ministry, where he will not only act as the chief spokesperson for the government, but also navigate the tricky political terrain as the next five years are likely to be tumultuous, inside and outside Parliament. Vaishnaw will now transition from a behind-the-scenes strategist to a front-foot player as Modi looks at transforming the rail sector. In picking his team, Modi has relied on experience, efficiency and political messaging.

If the 3Cs―coalition, continuity and consensus―were the buzzwords after the June 4 results of the Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent government formation, firefighting, too, will be a crucial requirement. With a stronger opposition, crucial portfolios like home affairs, agriculture and parliamentary affairs will be key in managing potential challenges. Kiren Rijiju will have to do the firefighting as parliamentary affairs minister, apart from handling the minority affairs ministry.

Home Minister Amit Shah will have the challenge of holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir and conducting the Census, already delayed by three years. Implementing the three new criminal laws and maintaining equilibrium on the national security front will need deft handling. “Modi 3.0 will take India’s security to the next level and build Bharat as a bulwark against terrorism, insurgency and Naxalism,” Shah said. RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat has set the agenda for the government by pointing out that Manipur has been awaiting peace for a year.

Modi has placed complete trust in Sitharaman by letting her continue as finance minister. In a month’s time, she will have a new record against her name, as she will present her seventh budget―she has already presented five full budgets and one interim budget. Sitharaman had shepherded the economy during the pandemic years and she now faces the challenge of ensuring inclusive growth with higher job creation to make India the third-largest economy in the world, as promised by the BJP.

Rajnath will face the challenge of dealing with calls to review the Agnipath scheme, as demanded by allies like the JD(U), before the first batch of Agniveers completes their four-year tenure by 2027.

Back to work: (From left) Rajnath Singh, Rajeev Ranjan Singh, Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari, Sarbananda Sonowal and Hardeep Singh Puri at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Union government | PTI Back to work: (From left) Rajnath Singh, Rajeev Ranjan Singh, Amit Shah, Nitin Gadkari, Sarbananda Sonowal and Hardeep Singh Puri at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Union government | PTI

Another crucial firefighting task will fall on Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has been allocated the agriculture and rural development ministries. Chouhan, credited with the BJP’s massive assembly election victory in Madhya Pradesh last year, will have to use his political capital to push reforms in the agriculture sector, address rural distress and engage with agitating farmers who demand minimum support price as a legal right. As he assumed charge, he handed over the BJP manifesto to the officials to list out promises made to farmers, hinting what his job profile is going to be. If Chouhan succeeds where his predecessors had failed, his profile will rise across the country. He has 16 years of experience as chief minister, even more than Modi’s 12 years.

Chouhan comes in at number six in the pecking order in the cabinet after Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari at four and BJP president J.P. Nadda at five. The only constant in all three Modi governments is Gadkari, who has held the same portfolio since 2014. In fact, he insisted on holding the same ministry, denying himself the chance of helming ministries with political heft.

Nadda’s return to his old portfolio of health and family welfare after five years only fits into the broader theme of continuity. The decision to retain Piyush Goyal, Bhupender Yadav, Pralhad Joshi, Sarbananda Sonowal, Dharmendra Pradhan, Virender Kumar, Giriraj Singh, Gajendra Shekhawat, Mansukh Mandaviya and G. Kishan Reddy reaffirms Modi’s faith in them.

Modi has given a sense of continuity as ministers were picked and portfolios allotted to ward off any signs of change even when the BJP could not get a majority on its own. The BJP has kept most of the significant ministries and also 61 berths in the 72-member council of ministers, while allies have been given those portfolios which were helmed by coalition partners in the past. Before formally starting his new term, Modi met former president Ram Nath Kovind, BJP veterans L.K. Advani and M.M. Joshi and called up former president Pratibha Patil and former prime ministers Manmohan Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda, seeking their blessings.

An essential part of running a coalition government is giving representation to allies and different geographical areas. Apart from 30 cabinet ministers, Modi’s new team includes five ministers of state with independent charge and 36 ministers of state, representing 24 states and most regions within states. To create a sense of diversity, keeping in mind upcoming assembly polls in Haryana, Maharashtra, Delhi and Bihar, the council of ministers has 27 members from OBCs (other backward classes), ten from scheduled castes and five each from scheduled tribes and minorities. ‘Hard work,’ which is a recurrent theme in Modi’s speeches, has reflected in his selection of ministers as he rewarded those who worked for the organisation and have been diligent in their work, shunning controversy.

Former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, 79, has become the first cabinet minister from the Musahars, one of the most backward dalit communities from the state. After his maiden Lok Sabha victory, he has been assigned the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) ministry, which was earlier handled by Narayan Rane and Gadkari. Manjhi’s elevation shows not only the rewards of coalition politics, but also the robustness of Indian democracy where those at the bottom of the pile could rise to the top.

The average age of the new Modi government is 58.7 years. If Manjhi is the oldest minister, the youngest cabinet minister is 36-year-old K. Ram Mohan Naidu of the TDP, who will helm the civil aviation ministry. His father, Yerran Naidu, was the youngest minister in the Deve Gowda cabinet in 1996. Ram Mohan, who graduated in engineering and MBA from the US, has been given the mandate to take forward the expansion of the aviation sector to smaller cities and also to ensure better facilities as the number of air travellers rises dramatically. Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was the aviation minister till June, will now handle the communications ministry and the northeastern region development ministry. Scindia is expected to steer the telecom sector towards growth with better auction of the 5G spectrum and move towards 6G.

The new cabinet has six former chief ministers besides Modi: Manohar Lal Khattar, Rajnath, Chouhan, Manjhi, Kumaraswamy and Sonowal. Khattar, considered to be close to Modi as both started their careers as RSS pracharaks, will steer the urban development and power ministries. These ministries were earlier held by technocrats R.K. Singh and Hardeep Singh Puri.

Kumaraswamy has got heavy industries and steel from the allies quota, while Rajeev Ranjan Singh of the JD(U) has been given panchayati raj, fisheries and animal husbandry. Paswan, another rising star among the BJP’s allies, has been made a cabinet minister with the portfolio of the food processing after his party won all five seats allotted to it. Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal has got the skill development ministry (minister of state, independent charge) apart from a junior minister’s post in the education ministry. Prataprao Jadhav of the Shiv Sena (Shinde) will hold independent charge of the ayush ministry, along with minister of state charge in the health ministry.

The council of ministers has two Sikhs, Hardeep Puri and Ravneet Singh Bittu, the BJP candidate from Ludhiana who lost to his Congress rival. Interestingly, Bittu is the only losing candidate who has been inducted into the council of ministers. He is named minister of state for railways and food processing. Bittu’s elevation comes on two counts: the BJP wanted to give representation to Punjab, as both Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Puri were made ministers in the past, despite them losing the polls. The Akali Dal used to take care of Sikh representation, till the party walked out of the National Democratic Alliance in 2020. Bittu, who is the grandson of the assassinated chief minister Beant Singh, is close to Shah. He is also a vocal opponent of the radical elements in Punjab.

The Modi government is mindful of the fact that two MPs who support Khalistan―Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa―got elected this time. Khalsa is the son of Beant Singh, one of the assassins of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Bittu’s elevation, the government hopes, could address the critical gap in dealing with the concerns of the Sikh community.

There are two Buddhists, Rijiju and Ramdas Athawale, in the ministry, and a Christian, the old party loyalist George Kurian from Kerala. For the first time, there is no Muslim in the ministry.

Among the states, Uttar Pradesh has the largest representation, followed by Bihar. Most of the allies, barring Ajit Pawar’s NCP, have found a place in the government. Ajit wants a cabinet post for his only MP.

The focus will now shift to the 100-day plan of the new government. Modi will have to negotiate with the allies on the Agnipath scheme and the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code. Besides, the BJP will have to appoint a party president. As Khattar, Chouhan and Bhupendra Yadav have been made ministers, a surprising pick is likely. Will the new president be among the current office-bearers, as has been the case during the past two terms, or brought in from the states? Or to amplify its political messaging after the passing of the women’s reservation bill, could it be the first-ever woman BJP chief? Stay tuned.