Always expect the Big Bang move from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So the cabinet reshuffle, long-discussed and awaited in Delhi, was shake, rattle, and a whole lot of roll – some of his most prominent ministers were sacked, 36 new entries were made into the Council of Ministers, and seven were promoted.
The 12 exits included Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar. But it is the dismissal of Dr Harsh Vardhan as Health Minister that gets top billing in this group. With his removal, the government has sought to ascribe to his role the vast criticism of its handling of the pandemic. It is however true that Dr Harsh Vardhan did little to suggest he was capable of or leading a coherent strategy or effort against the Coronavirus, particularly in the second wave when he seemed to limit his efforts to petulant hissy fits against those critical of the many elements that were collapsing in the reeling health system. Instead, of trying to increase the supply of oxygen, life-saving drugs and quick fixes on medical infrastructure, he singled out Opposition states like Maharashtra and Rajasthan, blaming them for not working hard enough to administer relief and vaccines. He wrote a nasty reply to Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s written suggestions on how to fight the pandemic. It stunned in its pettiness. He also posted nasty tweets about Rahul Gandhi in a transformation which really stripped his role of the dignity and gravitas expected of a cabinet minister. With Harshvardhan’s sacking, he will now carry the can for COVID mismanagement as Modi has clinically drawn a line in the sand and responded to public anger over the ghastly handling. While the Prime Minister’s Office was a huge part of Covid decision-making, the big penalty of Harsh Vardhan is intended to help tamp down the public anger.
The second big loser, Ravi Shankar Prasad, also got in to trouble with Modi when he was unable to bring social media giant Twitter to heel. The public back-and-forth with Twitter over its not complying with the new IT Rules, which have been challenged by many digital media publishers, made the Modi government look authoritarian but ineffectual. Modi always likes to signal strength.
Then there was the dumping of Prakash Javadekar, who had the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in addition to Environment. The foreign press has been fiercely attacking the Modi Government on Covid mismanagement and the alleged attempts to restrict the freedoms offered by a democracy. Javadekar seemed helpless and out of touch and was culled.
So, who is the big winner? Jyotiraditya Scindia, who defected to the BJP, taking down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, joined the cabinet with the assignment of Civil Aviation, a ministry once held by his father, Madhavrao Scindia, in the government of PV Narasimha Rao. Scindia joins the select cohort of Congress leaders who have been rewarded by the PM for crossing over to his party. Himanta Biswa Sarma was made Assam Chief Minister, and Narayan Rane, a triple defector, has now made it to the cabinet. Kiren Rijiju got a huge promotion to the cabinet and is now in charge of the Law Ministry.
Modi signalled that his faith in the capacity of IAS officials to deliver remains unchanged as former IAS official and private secretary to the late Atal Behari Vajpayee, Ashwini Vaishnav, was given the politically crucial Railways Ministry, as also Information Technology. Vaishnav, an IIT and Wharton alum, is a discreet bridge between Naveen Patnaik, the long-serving Odisha Chief minister and Modi. Patnaik, after a call from Modi, enabled Vaishnav to be elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha from Odisha two years ago. Vaishnav’s credentials are similar to those of Jayant Sinha who was the junior Finance Minister in Modi 1.0
Mansukh Mandaviya, a Gujarat politician trusted by both Modi and Amit Shah, has been put in charge of Health which has now been surprisingly clubbed with Chemicals and Fertilisers. Shah has publicly called Mandaviya a “live wire”. Rane, who I referred to earlier, started as a shakha pramukh (ward leader) in the Shiv Sena; he is a strong leader from the Konkan region and was briefly the Sena’s Chief Minister of Maharashtra. An Uddhav Thackeray-baiter, Rane moved to the Congress and then to the BJP. Rane is expected to spearhead the BJP’s effort to win the elections for the Mumbai municipal corporation, the richest in the country. Rane is also expected to push the BJP acceptability in the Konkan region.
Bhupendra Yadav, Amit Shah’s chief lieutenant, has made it to the cabinet with the portfolios of Labour and Environment. Yadav is credited by Shah for a big part in election victories including Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Shah strongly backed Yadav’s bid to become a cabinet minister. Yadav was a BJP General Secretary and has been a Rajya Sabha member since 2002.
Modi and Shah are the most astute practitioners of realpolitik and have given an enormous push to UP (seven ministers) and 27 ministers who are from Other Backward Castes (OBCs) with elections coming up in February next year. Yogi Adityanath had recommended the deputy mayor of Gorakhpur, his constituency, for a big post and Pankaj Choudhary has as a result become the junior Finance Minister. 56-year-old Choudhary is a six-time Lok Sabha MP.
Anurag Thakur impressed Modi enough to given him a promotion to cabinet rank and the Information & Broadcasting Ministry along with Sports. Thakur is looking for an image change after he was filmed during the Delhi riots giving a hate speech and will hit the ground running to ensure good press for a very thin – skinned Modi Government. The jumbo recast also saw the accommodation of RCP Singh from the Janata Dal United and Pasupati Paras, signalling that Chirag Paswan is now a pariah to Modi and Shah.
With these crackling changes, Modi has kicked it up a notch – and then some – ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections and at a time when his government appeared vulnerable to charges of weak governance on key frontiers. The losers in this reshuffle will have blunt force trauma to contend with; the winners will need to deliver strongly and quickly.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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