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The big bang cabinet reshuffle

Friday, September 08, 2017
By Bharatkumar Raut

PM Modi and BJP President Shah occupied in reconstructing ‘new look’ clothes for 2019 Lok Sabha elections in search of a fresh new mandate

While Maharashtra and many other parts of the nation were celebrating Ganeshotsav, in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant BJP President Amit Shah were busy in tailoring ‘new look’ clothes to face the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in which Modi and the BJP would be seeking a fresh mandate from the Indian population. One obvious instrument to make palpable change was to make corrections in the Union cabinet, those have been due to over a year. After Venkaiah Naidu was made the Vice President, the need became even more obvious and urgent as he was holding many important portfolios including Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs. Thus, the Big Bang Cabinet Reshuffle. This change is surely the last before the 2019 Exercise. It means, the new entrants would get about 18 months to settle and show their performance. It’s a difficult task if not impossible.

Apart from a few surprises, the key takeaway from Modi's reshuffle exercise before the big battle of 2019 is the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as only the second woman after Indira Gandhi to the Defence ministry. With Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister, the two together make up half of the all-powerful Cabinet Committee on Security. Gandhi held the portfolio as Prime Minister, so Sitharaman is the first woman Defence Minister, rather path-breaking from a party considered to be patriarchal. For once, no spin is needed as this this a substantive move. Sitharaman has been rewarded for being completely in synch with Modi's message in bilateral negotiations during her term as Commerce Minister and this move to reward the 58-year-old JNU alum, who was earlier an extremely effective spokesperson of the BJP, is going to dominate the headlines.

To deliver much-hyped talks
Before the oath-taking ceremony, Modi had his entire new team come over for a breakfast at his home where he delivered a sharp and stark decree: "Please perform. We need to show results". Amit Shah was also present to drive home the message and emphasise the fact that he's the real Number 2 to Modi. Effectively, the Modi-led government has delivered enough slogans; it now needs to deliver the much-hyped talk of efficient governance; there are only 18 months to go for elections.

A person who has held on to being in the cabinet by the skin of her teeth but lost the big responsibility of the Clean Ganga mission is Uma Bharti. She lost the portfolio  to the man Modi perceives as a doer, Nitin Gadkari. He will now look after the Ganga rejuvenation. Bharti will handle drinking water and sanitation. Gadkari must be a relieved man as he did not want additional charge of Railways and Modi agreed as he felt he was doing an excellent job as the government's star performer on infrastructure and road-building.

The yarn-spinners of the government are on message saying that the induction of four retired officials from the IAS and IPS ( S P Singh, R K Singh, K J Alphons and Hardeep Puri) will add heft to the governance story. Their induction points to something that the government and the party have been painfully trying to cover up - the lack of a bench strength and talent base in the BJP despite having 340 MPs.

All the party's allies, specially the newest, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, got a royal ditch from Modi and Shah as despite much speculation, no one from the JDU was inducted. Nitish will now realise what the Shiv Sena has long been experiencing - the BJP of Modi and Shah is always the big and dominating brother in any alliance. Nitish is learnt to be upset but will have to get used to dealing with his tricky new partners.

The caste story continues with a big push for upper castes from UP, Bihar and, in the case of Karnataka, new entrant Ananthkumar Hegde who replaces Rajiv Pratap Rudy in the skill development ministry and who was filmed beating up a doctor in a government hospital and in a case of hate speech. Modi and Shah have also inducted Shiv Pratap Shukla as Junior Finance Minister - he is long-time rival to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. His job sends an important message to the Brahmins in UP restive over a Thakur as Chief Minister.

Piyush Goyal, who performed credibly in Power, is rewarded with the Railways Ministry. Goyal had cracked the whip and translated several government schemes into reality on the ground which helped in the UP elections. Shah is learnt to have made a big point of this to Modi. Dharmendra Pradhan was also elevated to the cabinet after he performed extremely well in a scheme close to Modi's heart - Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana - through which LPG connections have been provided to 2.5 crore people. Pradhan is also likely to be the BJP's face in Odisha where the party has been steadily gaining.
Shah is believed to be impressed with Pradhan's work for the party in Jharkhand. Pradhan started as an ABVP activist and his father was also a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

After Najma Heftullah was given a gubernatorial position in the North-East, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, is now the only Muslim in the cabinet, has been upgraded in the Minority Affairs Ministry because of what is judged by the BJP as an effective performance as Parliamentary Affairs Minister and due to the long years he has clocked with the BJP. A senior leader said "He has truly paid his dues".
 
Smriti holds fort
Many eye-brows are raised as Smriti Irani continues to hold dual charge with Information and Broadcasting no longer a temporary portfolio. Her aggression will ensure that state-run media remains on message. Vijay Goel has been shifted out from Sports and Col R S Rathore has been given independent charge of it. Goel has been made Minister of State in Parliamentary affairs as Ananth Kumar's junior minister.

What is no more surprising or a matter of any relevance is the fact that the so-called margdarshak mandal which has never even met is now not even pretending to any relevance as none of its members including L K Advani bothered to show up for the oath ceremony. When Modi had taken office in 2014, a lot of stories had appeared as to how "technocrats and domain experts would be inducted including E Sreedharan as Railway Minister". Three years down the line, Modi seems to have realised that he needs experienced bureaucrats to ensure that obdurate officialdom delivers on his ambitious plans. Much to the consternation of the "Bhakts" who had sworn to tear down the Lutyens' edifice, its grip continues with former members of both wings of Raisina Hill holding important posts.

Now the new Cabinet has been left with hardly any time to relax and celebrate. Its like a batsman coming in the middle of the wicket when 47th over of the 50-over match is being bowled. From the first ball, a hitting is expected otherwise all will perish in 2019.

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