The latest cabinet reshuffle in Delhi has attracted a lot of media attention. This is partly due to its scale. Rarely you see 12 ministers, including some high-profile ones, dropped and 36 new faces coming in.
This was overhaul, not reshuffle. The second most discussed point was politics: representation of castes and communities and how it might help Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the oncoming assembly elections.
Community representation is key to the election process and all elected governments pay attention to that area. The uniqueness of the Narendra Modi government lies in using this as a handle to go out for a wider talent search. This will help democracy in the longer run.
All selections may not live up to the expectation but many will surely prove their worth, giving India a wider choice of leaders.
There has been little discussion though as to how this reshuffle aimed to uphold the cause of regional interests and federalism, and linked them to wider national interests. The huge contingent of 21 ministers — out of 78 in the council — from the four eastern (West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha) and eight northeastern (seven sisters and Sikkim) states, is proof of this initiative.
For the first time in history, East and North-East are duly represented in the Union Council of Ministers. Together these states share 21 per cent of India’s geography and 25 per cent of the population.
They have 26 per cent representation in the new cabinet. Of the 32 ministers of cabinet rank or with independent charge; 10 are from the east and northeast, which rarely come under the arc light in the national politics.
Political compulsions notwithstanding, merit was given a priority. West Bengal didn’t get a single cabinet berth, either because those who were given early opportunity failed to prove their worth or the rest of the members of Parliament (MPs) that BJP has in the state, lack experience in administration.
But inducting four ministers from West Bengal is a record. The same goes for most of the states: Bihar (six), Jharkhand (three), Odisha (three) and North East (five). The remote Tripura got its first central minister. Kiren Rijiju of Arunachal Pradesh is promoted to the high-profile Law Ministry. Shipping, rail, IT ministers are from the region.
Its showering fortunes. In the past, only a few from the region — like Santosh Mohan Deb, Pranab Mukherjee, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, etc — used to hog the limelight.
Having central ministers in your backyard is a great opportunity for regional development. But that’s possible only when the state and central governments work in tandem. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) ruled Odisha — one of the fast-rising states of the east — and BJP-ruled Assam will surely look forward to capitalising on this opportunity. It is to be seen if the Trinamool-ruled West Bengal dumps its politics of conflict for growth and development.
However, it will henceforth be difficult for regional governments to blame the Centre for lack of attention to the east and the North-East. Many important ministries are practically shifted to this part of the country.
In high-profile ‘ports, shipping and waterways’, the cabinet minister is from Assam and, one of the two junior ministers is from West Bengal. In ‘education’, the cabinet minister is from Odisha and the three ministers of state are from Manipur, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
From external affairs to home or law, the region has representation everywhere and the amount of thought that has gone into deciding portfolios is mind-blowing. West Bengal, particularly north Bengal, is strategic geography. The state shares a 2,500 km international border with Bangladesh (2,217 km), Nepal (100 km) and Bhutan (183 km).
From Siliguri — better known for Siliguri Corridor — in North Bengal; Bangladesh border gate is 10 km by road, Nepal 26 km, Bhutan 150 km and China is not far away. The new cabinet has a junior Home Minister (Nisith Pramanik) from North Bengal.
Boost To Act East
The bureaucratic approach to policy implementation often fails to give space to local aspirations or interests leading to disastrous outcomes. The new cabinet has apparently taken a granular approach to address these issues, as is evident in the selection of Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh as the junior External Affairs Minister.
Singh is from Manipur, which is emerging as India’s gateway to South-East Asia. Manipur shares border with the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) economy of Myanmar, where India is pursuing several projects as part of the act east programme.
The most important of such projects is a highway (Trilateral Highway) that will connect Manipur with Thailand, offering India wider access to the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) region.
The landlocked northeast (sharing 98 per cent of its border with China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh) may be the biggest beneficiary of this initiative.
Expectedly, Singh will play a key role in making act east more relevant to the regional economy, which is now witnessing huge investments, particularly under the Bharatmala project, in both inter-regional and intra-regional connectivity.
More On Connectivity
The heavy presence of the east and North-East in the ‘ports, shipping and waterways’ ministry may be indicative of a further focus on connectivity and in particular multi-modal connectivity in the region.
The logistics to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is high in India, and it is particularly high in the east and the North East. The introduction of rail, modern highways and widening air connectivity started impacting this cost. The Guwahati-Agartala truck rentals are under pressure since the introduction of broad-gauge rail connectivity in 2016, as 40 per cent of the cargo has taken the rail route.
But a lot more is yet to be done, particularly in the promotion of inland waterways (which were a prime mode of transportation in pre-independence days) and multi-modal transport.
The Modi government has taken pathbreaking initiatives in this area through the Kolkata-Varanasi Ganga Jal Marg project and the addition/extension of the protocol inland-water transport (IWT) routes between Kolkata and North East through Bangladesh. A multimodal terminal is also coming up at Jogighopa in Assam to promote trade between North East, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Having said that there are still many gaps in the story. Not much is heard about the progress of Ganga Jalmarg in recent months. Bengal Bihar and Assam are full of rivers including Ganga and Brahmaputra. Their harnessing for goods movement remaining low. There was a plan to develop more IWT routes. Not much is heard about it either for quite some time. The biggest gap in the whole story is the non-availability of a seaport in West Bengal.
As India’s oldest metropolis and the only one in the region, Kolkata has an enviable amount of soft infrastructure. It will soon be connected by the dedicated (rail) freight corridor. But, the river port is a major hurdle for cheap and efficient transportation. A seaport can immediately catapult Kolkata as the multi-modal logistics hub, fuelling growth in the entire region.
It is anticipated that the new Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal (Assam) and his deputy, Shantanu Thakur (West Bengal), will pay attention to this area.
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