The massive surgical strike on his own cabinet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been read in three ways: one is that Modi is preparing for the Uttar Pradesh and other assembly polls next year; the other is to send the message that ministers must perform or else be shown the door; and the third is to signal a shift in the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) caste base towards Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs), which get 27 posts and 20 respectively.
This interpretation would not be wrong, especially the shift towards an OBC/SC/ST-weighted cabinet. With 47 seats between them, they now constitute more than 60 per cent of the Modi ministry. Subaltern Hindutva has arrived with Modi himself being its torch-bearer.
However, the other two propositions — that this is all about the Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand polls or that this is entirely about performance — would be only partly true.
The ouster of 12 ministers, six of them from the cabinet and the others from minister of state posts, including Harsh Vardhan, Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad, came as a surprise.
But to read this as a signal to non-performers would be wrong. During Covid, almost all ministries underperformed, and so this can hardly be an explanation for everybody.
If Harsh Vardhan seemed to do badly in the second Covid wave, surely he also needed to be complimented on how the first wave was handled. Modi also does not believe in dumping his loyal lieutenants.
If non-performers had to be shown the door, Sadananda Gowda, who went from law to railways to statistics, ought to have gone out much earlier. But he has gone out only now.
Probably he is no longer needed even from a Karnataka caste angle, with Shobha Karandlaje replacing him (she too is a Gowda from Karnataka) at MoS level.
So, we have to look for explanations elsewhere.
If Uttar Pradesh is where the ministerial message is being targeted, adding seven members from this state hardly sounds like a big deal. Given its 15 per cent weightage in Lok Sabha seats and 17 per cent in the country’s total population, purely in terms of proportional representation, UP merits at least 12 ministers. But that is not what it got, and the reason is the Prime Minister himself. As the MP from Varanasi, the main message in Uttar Pradesh is Modi himself, and the caste arithmetic in favour of OBCs. Numbers are not the issue here.
Here is what seems more likely in terms of the reasoning behind the sweeping changes made to the Modi ministry, including the induction of 43 new faces, the creation of 15 new cabinet posts in order to induct new ministers and elevate seven from minister of state (MoS) levels.
First, Modi is not just trying to create a performing ministry. He is actually building administrative experience in his party. Unlike the Congress, which has been in power for more than five decades and thus can always draw upon old hands to run difficult ministries, the BJP, which sees itself as the natural party of governance now and in the future, does not have this luxury.
This is why Modi is trying to blood as many newcomers as possible, so that lots of party members develop hands-on experience over the remainder of the term. This is also why junior ministers are often attached to two different ministries simultaneously. Over the last seven years, more than 100 MPs from various states have adorned the Modi ministry.
Second, Modi knows that in the face of a strong emerging regional opposition, he needs the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for 2024. This is why he has inducted cabinet ministers from the Janata Dal (United), Lok Janshakti Party and Apna Dal, among others.
By the time 2024 arrives, one should expect at least one more round of cabinet changes, this time to accommodate more allies in the NDA. Allies may be needed in Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Third, the simultaneous exit of senior ministers and the induction of new cabinet members sounds a bit like the Kamaraj plan of the old Congress party in the 1960s. As the Congress began losing ground, the party decided to get its senior ministers to resign and work for the party while inducting new faces.
The BJP is doing the same. The BJP did not do as well in West Bengal, and has lost ground in some states in the previous round of elections (Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, etc). The seniors will now be expected to work to restore the party’s standing in these and other states.
Fourth, Modi is using young blood to bring more energy into the team. This is what explains the elevation of Mansukh Mandaviya to Health, which now also includes chemicals and fertilisers — the latter being an omnibus ministry where the most important segment is pharmaceuticals.
This also explains the arrival of Ashwini Vaishnaw at railways, IT and communications, Anurag Thakur (at I&B), Sarbananda Sonowal (ports, shipping and water resources), and Kishan Reddy (culture and tourism). These are among the young ones to be given greater responsibilities as cabinet ministers, though Sonowal’s elevation was expected after he stepped aside as Chief Minister of Assam in order to let Himanta Biswa Sarma take over.
The hope is that new brooms will sweep cleaner by bringing in great enthusiasm. Rajeev Chandrashekhar is a former corporate sector inductee, with skilling and IT as part of his brief as minister of state.
Fifth, performers have now been given greater responsibilities. Thus, Dharmendra Pradhan, who is widely seen to have done well in petroleum (including the Ujjwala scheme, which was an election winner for the BJP in many constituencies), now gets education and skills, while petroleum goes to Hardeep Puri, who retains urban affairs while shedding civil aviation.
Sixth, relatively new entrants — but experienced hands — like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Narayan Rane have been given tough assignments in civil aviation and MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises), both sectors in the throes of a crisis. This is an opportunity to prove themselves rather than just a reward for joining the party.
Seventh, railways is one ministry that Modi appears to be really disappointed with. It is India’s largest public sector employer, but it has not done for Modi what the Golden Quadrilateral did for Vajpayee — drive growth.
Modi has always set great store by the railways, but the ministry has not lived up to his expectations. Three ministers have come and gone (Sadananda Gowda, Suresh Prabhu, and now Piyush Goyal), but the organisation has not been transformed visibly.
Hence the decision to make one more change, with former bureaucrat, corporate executive and Wharton alumnus Vaishnaw stepping in.
While railways has been downgraded from a ministry with a budget presentation of its own to one that is only part of the general budget, it has now been asked to synergise with communications. Modi will be hoping that something works this time.
This will not be Narendra Modi’s last cabinet reshuffle. One can expect minor changes in 2022 after the Uttar Pradesh elections, and major ones in 2023, after the Karnataka elections and preparatory to the 2024 final battle for the Lok Sabha.
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