Much has been said about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first cabinet reshuffle over the weekend. Most of the attention has been on analyzing either the criminal antecedents of the new inductees or their overall caste and region-wise distribution. But as days pass, it has become clear that the reshuffle was quite sudden and both the party and the appointees were unprepared for it. A case in point brought out by this Mint story is the fact that the government’s plans to bring about insurance reforms have been adversely affected with J.P. Nadda and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi joining the government.

Beyond the hackneyed analysis, Modi’s cabinet reshuffle needs to be viewed from the perspective of governance and policy implementation. The key question to ask is whether the changes were made on the basis of the administrative acumen— both of the losers and winners—or were they prompted by compulsions of electoral politics.

If the existing ministers were removed on the first count then, while it is very much a prime minister’s prerogative to choose who works in his cabinet, it does not reflect well on Modi’s ability to choose the right talent. For instance, why would Nadda be better than Harsh Vardhan at the health ministry when the latter has a fairly good record as health minister in Delhi? And if Vardhan was poor in running the health ministry—which he is much better placed to run—then what inspires hope that he will run the ministry of science and technology better.

However, if, as some reports suggest, Vardhan has been given a lighter portfolio so that he may help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its preparation for the upcoming Delhi state assembly elections, then it is another matter of concern. That’s because it points to the possibility that the reshuffle has little to do with the Prime Minister’s ability to spot talent. Rather, it shows in a significant way, Modi’s inability to keep governance shielded from routine political compulsions.

For instance, the induction of Birendra Singh, the Jat leader from Haryana, who recently switched sides to BJP from Congress and played a central role in BJP’s historic victory in Haryana state assembly elections, is being seen as a compensation for the chief minister’s post in Haryana. Similarly, eight out of the 21 new inductees are from states that will go to polls in the next couple of years. These names include members of Parliament such as Giriraj Singh from Bihar, infamous for wanting to send Modi detractors to Pakistan, and first-timer Babul Supriyo from West Bengal. The choice seems more to signal Modi’s focus on winning these states than necessarily improving governance at the Centre.

Winning in more states is a bonafide objective but Modi should not allow this to overshadow his first responsibility—improving governance at the central level. In the past the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh was quite justifiably criticized for having pointless reshuffles. Most of the time, Singh used the reshuffles to divert attention from some allegation against a minister or, more significantly, to accommodate the demands of his coalition partners.

For instance, the railway ministry ended up having seven ministers in the UPA’s second five-year tenure. This essentially meant that railways further sank into a mess. Similarly, the water resources ministry had five ministers and the law ministry had four ministers in the five-year period.

Worse still, it is not as if Singh was making a clean break every time he reshuffled. He ended up using the same minister for different portfolios. For instance, Salman Khurshid was made the foreign minister after he came under fire as the law minister. Pawan Kumar Bansal ended up heading five different ministries at different times during the course of five years until his luck ran out and he had to resign over corruption charges. Similarly, Veerappa Moily headed four different ministries over the course of five years.

Manmohan Singh’s concern was to keep his fragile government afloat. One wonders if Modi is also falling into the same trap, albeit for a dramatically different reason—that of asserting a pan India presence.

This is unfortunate. India has provided Modi with a rousing mandate—the best any government has had since the start of the economic reforms in 1991. He must use this mandate to run the central government in a manner that behoves such a massive verdict. There is no dearth of analysis on what all needs to be done to set India back on the reforms path. While winning more state assembly elections is important, especially for attaining majority in the Rajya Sabha, surely making the Central governance subservient to state politics is not the way forward.

After all, as this New York Times editorial blog questions, is Modi a different kind of leader as he promised to be? He seems to have missed out on his promise of Minimum Government. But if he does not choose for the right reasons, he runs the risk of missing out on the Maximum Governance promise as well.

Policy Puddle runs each Thursday and comments on public policy developments.

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