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Mainstream, VOL LV No 38 New Delhi September 9, 2017

The Union Cabinet Reshuffle

Saturday 9 September 2017, by Barun Das Gupta


Prime Minister Modi has reshuffled his Cabinet putting an end to endless media speculation about who will be ‘in’ and who will be ‘out’. In the event, some Ministers who were found to be lacking in their performance have been shunted out, ostensibly to strengthen the party in the run-up to the general elections in 2019. What beats understanding is how a person who has failed to perform as a Minister is expected to do better as a party organiser. The induction of several former IFS, IAS and IPS officers into the Cabinet is an indirect admission that the government is in need of administrators of proven capability and experience and, by extension, an admission that the ruling party has been found wanting in providing competent administrators from within its own ranks.

Much is being made of Nirmala Sitharaman being promoted as a full-fledged Minister and being given the important portfolio of Defence. This is the first time that India has a woman Defence Minister, it is being pointed out. Undoubtedly Nirmala has proven herself to be an able administrator, an effective party spokesperson who is always able to put across her party’s stand in precise and concise terms. But not much should be read into her being made the Defence Minister. Those familiar with the inner working of the South Block know that the Ministry of Defence is actually controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in close consultation with the National Security Adviser.

It has been pointed out that for the first time the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has two women on it—Defence Minister Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Here again, Sushma has always kept a low profile and Modi has been acting as the de facto Foreign Minister. Sushma’s only job in the MEA now seems to be to help Indians stranded in foreign countries and getting visas issued promptly to those foreign nationals who want to come to India for medical treatment. Both are humanitarian service but can hardly be called the job that an External Affairs Minister is expected to do, namely, to interact with foreign governments on a regular basis. That job has been taken over by the Prime Minister himself.

Perceptive observers have noticed in the reshuffle a subtle attempt by Modi to stamp his own authority on the government, independent of the RSS. Reports have appeared in newspapers that some RSS functionaries have expressed the fear that the Centre’s policies are creating public discontent. Sections of the media had speculated, defying all political logic, that Amit Shah, after his election to the Rajya Sabha, was going to be inducted into the Union Cabinet and being given the Home portfolio. Naturally, that has not happened. At a time when the party is gearing itself up for the general elections in 2019, it can hardly afford to saddle its President with ministerial responsibilities and that, too, of so important a portfolio as Home, and give the reins of the party to someone else.

It will be interesting to see how the RSS reacts to Modi asserting his authority in running the government without consulting with or being guided by the advice coming from Nagpur. In other words, how the RSS and Modi will work out a modus vivendi. 

A subtle change has taken place and is taking place in the functioning of the Central Government. More and more power is being concentrated in the PMO. It had happened earlier also during the latter part of Indira Gandhi’s rule but not to this extent. Under Indira, Union Ministers had enough independence to run their Ministries. The present trend is toward creating a single centre of power in the government where other Ministers are in constant awe and fear of the Prime Minister. A massive BJP win in the next elections will only accelerate this trend.

By contrast, the Opposition’s performance is languid and lacklustre. In spite of the official admission that demonetisation has failed to achieve any of its professed objectives of unearthing black money, catching tax-dodgers and black-money hoarders and stopping terror financing and has actually resulted in more loss of jobs and a fall in the GDP, the Opposition has failed to cash in on the issue. Even the already discernible negative impact of GST (many medicines have disappeared from the market following its introduction) could not be exploited by the Opposition, except for occasional media criticism. There has been no effort by any Opposition party to take to the streets and mobilise the people. That is another reason why the people have become lukewarm to these parties. Rahul Gandhi’s absence at the Patna rally on August 27 is inexplicable. Why was it necessary for him to undertake a foreign trip precisely at that time?

Mass discontent is there. Public anger is growing. But the Opposition is too fragmented, too debilitated and ideologically too disunited to channelise the restive mood of the people into disciplined and organised mass movements So, Narendra Modi reigns supreme, his authority none to challenge.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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