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Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal (third from left) at the swearing-in ceremony of the union cabinet ministers in the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday. Photo: PTI
Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal (third from left) at the swearing-in ceremony of the union cabinet ministers in the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Team Modi gets a makeover and a mission

Nirmala Sitharaman named defence minister, Piyush Goyal railway minister, in a union cabinet reshuffle that excluded NDA allies

New Delhi: The much-awaited expansion and reshuffle of the Union Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally took place on Sunday.

It had its usual share of shock—the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as the defence minister, only the second woman to occupy the job—and awe—scotching the usual media speculation on likely choices for the new-look cabinet and overlooking politicians in preference to a batch of former bureaucrats, two of whom are not even members of Parliament.

The implicit message to all was that the Modi metric of governance rewarded performance and loyalty, backed the cause of gender rebalancing and was willing to bet on out-of-the-box solutions like inducting technocrats to ensure last-mile delivery.

The new team has its task clearly defined: deliver, over the next 18 months, on Modi’s electoral promises and programmes rolled out in the past three years. Significantly, the prime minister has opted for fresh leadership in two ministries, labour and skill development, which are crucial to the generation of jobs—something that is rapidly becoming an electoral slogan for 2019.

And it also had Modi’s usual business-like flourish—departing for China within hours of the ceremony, overseen by the new president, Ramnath Kovind, concluding in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Interestingly, the revamp, which included the induction of nine new ministers, involved only Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates. The exclusion of key constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) suggest that another expansion is likely.

“The message is clear that talent would be recognized and promoted by BJP leadership. The decision to elevate Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister is unconventional because Indian politics is dominated by male politicians. The message by the prime minister is for the entire political system," said a senior BJP leader on condition of anonymity.

Members of the BJP also argue that while the prime minister has been careful in not disturbing the party’s top leadership, mainly Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari, he has begun to blood the next generation; the elevation of Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, and previously of Prakash Javadekar, are part of this plan.

“This is not a political reshuffle but one aimed at deliverables. The big message is that one’s seniority in the party or that someone belongs to a particular caste or state is no longer a reason alone to be inducted on top posts within the government," said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

According to Kumar, the decision to induct bureaucrats was a clear signal that Modi, with the general election less than two years away, is putting premium on deliverables.

Making the cut are former bureaucrats such as Union home secretary Raj Kumar Singh, Indian Foreign Service officer Hardeep Puri, Delhi Development Authority commissioner Alphons Kannanthanam and former Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh.

Another take away from Sunday was the absence of non-BJP NDA partners among the inductees. A surprising omission was the NDA’s latest entrant, Janata Dal (United).

“Sunday’s revamp shows that the prime minister wants people who can deliver. Caste arithmetic is out and competence is in. If one sees Sitharaman’s elevation as defence minister and government’s stance on triple talaq, a sustained message is being sent out to women," said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst.

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