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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

PM Modi resets Council of Ministers: social inclusion and loyalty as prime drivers | P S Jayaramu

Friday 16 July 2021

by P. S. Jayaramu*

12th July, 2021

The much awaited expansion and reshuffle of the Union Council of Ministers took place a few days ago. As is his wont, Prime Minister Modi sprang a few surprises by showing the exit door to six of his senior cabinet colleagues and four Ministers of State, one of whom held independent charge. The ostensible explanation for axing the senior ministers is their poor performance In the evaluation exercises carried out by the Party and the Government. There were widespread criticisms of the way Dr. Harsha Vardhan handled the second wave of the Covid-19 crisis apart from prematurely claiming that that the country had reached the end game in the pandemic! He also earned the wrath of the opposition and the media for shabbily responding to the former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s letter to Modi offering suggestions for Covid management and also for his unpreparedness to handle shortage of oxygen supplies for treatment of Covid patients. With the monsoon session of the Parliament approaching, Modi had to be seen to be acting which led to Dr. Harsha Vardhan’s removal. Ravishankar Prasad had to go for taking on the social media internationals, specially Twitter, too abrasively and in the process doing precious little to save PM’s international image. Prakash javadekar had to leave for perhaps aggressively making compromises with the country’s environmental laws, which attracted huge international criticisms, things which Modi was evidently not comfortable with. The mandate to the three senior ministers was, perhaps, to do their job efficiently without allowing a dilution of the PM’s image! When they were seen as failing in their task, they had to be sacrificed. Ramesh Pokriyal as education minister, was axed as he was perceived to be ineffective in handling the negative consequences of the Covid fallout on education and for poor supervision of the implementation of NEP 2020.

If performance was the criterion for the senior ministers to be edged out, to be fair, finance mininister Nirmala Seetharaman too should have gone as she has been an under-performer in handling the economic crisis on the GDP front, conrolling inflation and handling the unemployment situation as well as in not effectively countering the negative image in international ratings. However, She has survived largely because of her abundant loyalty to the PM. The loyalty factor comes out more glaringly in the competitive expression of committment to implement the vision of the Prime Minister by the new entrants as well as those who have been elivated to cabinet rank. No doubt, a few former civil servants/ technocrats, like Ashwini Viashnaw and Rajeev Chandrashekar have been brought into the council of ministers, the former put in charge of key ministries like Railways, Communications, Elecrtonics and IT and the latter in charge of Skill Development. Hopefully, they would be able to deliver to their master’s satisfaction!

If we leave out the rewards and punishments meted out by PM Modi and try to understand the undercurrents behind the expansion of the ministry, it becomes clear that according primacy to social inclusion was one of the key political concerns. The Prime minister has been at pains to shed the upper caste and bania image of the BJP and provide an overriding thrust for wider representation to the SC, STs and OBCs in his council of minister. That there are 12 SCs, 8 STs and 27 OBCs in his reconstituted ministry (apart from he himself representing the OBC segment of the society) bears ample testimony to the huge image make over of the Party that Modi has consciously engineered and wishes to pursue. Needless to say, this accomplishment of Narendra Modi stands him and the BJP on a firmer socio-political position.

The social calculus behind the reconstitution of the council of ministers also needs to be located in the context of the assembly elections to be in held in 2022 specially in Uttara Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Gujarat. Including seven new ministers, accomodating 3 ministers each from SC and OBC groups and 1 brahmin to the existing 14 ministers from UP shows the crucial importance Modi attaches to retaining power there. Accomodating a reasonably large number of ministers from the north-east in addition to elivating Kiren Rijiju as minister for law and justice is driven by considerations of electoral appeasement of the regional voters.

Jyotiraditya Scindia had to wait for an year to be taken to the Cabinet. By making him Civil Aviation minister, Modi hopes Scindia will not only make the sector turn corners but, more specifically, bring about the privitisation of the loss making national carrier Air India. It will be a true test of Scindia’s capabilities. By conferring four ministerial positions to Partymen from West Bengal, Modi has sought to keep the spirits of Party workers high in the wake of the Party’s failure to wrest power from Mamata Banerjee. Accomodating senior leader Narayan Rane from Maharashtra and giving a bigger representation to Gujarat are also driven by political and electoral considerations.

As for Karnataka, caste and regional balancing has been well achieved by replacing Sadananda Gowda by Ms. Shobha Karandlaje, a Vokkaliga from the same south Canara region which Gowda represented in the ministry earlier. While Narayana Swamy represents the dalit community, Bhaghawant Khuba satisfies the aspirations of the strong lingayat component of the Party from the northern region. Rajeev Chandrashekar represents the technocratic face of the Silicon Valley of India, Bengaluru. All in all, caste and regional balancing have been skilfully achieved in order to enhance the prospects of the Party in poll bound States and in States where the BJP is in power.

As to whether the cabinet reshuffle was influenced by the Lok Sabha elections which are still far away, it is difficult to come up with any definitive judgement. UP Assembly results next year would be a decisive factor. Recapturing power in UP would confer a huge advantage to the BJP and the Modi regime. In all probability, there may be another reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, perhaps in 2023, as a curtain raiser to the national elections. That said, it is clear that Modi would like to have and retain as many allies as possible in the NDA. Giving representation to Parties like Apna Dal, Lok Janashakti( LJP) and JD(U) as seen by the way these parties have been represented in the expanded ministry, though the JD(U) is unhappy that it has got only one position. It’s desire to get the former Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Modi , who is now in the Rajya Sabha, has not been realised. May be, he would get in to the Cabinet in the next reshuffle. AIADMK has been accomodated with a ministerial birth by taking Murugan who is yet to become a member of either House of Parliament, Modi’s munificence for AIADMK’s alliance with the BJP in the recent assembly elections in Tamilnadu and sharing power in Puducherry.

In conclusion, Prime Minister Modi seems to have achieved multiple goals in the mega cabinet expansion. By dropping some senior ministers, he has conveyed the message that under-performers have been punished and in the process has absolved himself of responsibility for failures. He has brought in a long list of new comers who owe absolute allegiance to him. The net result is that Modi has further consolidated his hold over what can only be described as a Prime ministerial government in operation in the country. The prime minister has also hinted that social inclusiveness is both an end and a means to future electoral gains. Finally, wider geographical/regional representation in the council of ministers is projected by Modi as a panacea for his Government’s longevity.

*(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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