New Delhi: Two years into his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday carried out a major reshuffle and expansion of the Union cabinet based on the principle of realpolitik and individual performance.
Modi, however, kept the nucleus of decision-making within the government—the finance, defence, home, road transport and external affairs ministries—untouched.
But he signalled a premium on performance by reducing the responsibilities of some high-profile ministers, including cabinet ministers Smriti Irani and Ravi Shankar Prasad.
The cabinet rejig also set the stage for a change in the organizational framework of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ever since party president Amit Shah began his new term in January, there have been expectations of a recast of his core team.
With key state elections set to be held over the next two years, five of the 19 ministers of state inducted on Tuesday are part of the electorally crucial scheduled caste (SC) community, two are from scheduled tribes (STs) and one from other backward classes (OBC). Seventeen of the 19 belong to the BJP, while the remaining two are from National Democratic Alliance members Apna Dal and Republican Party of India (Athawale).
Among the top ministers whose portfolios witnessed dramatic changes was human resource and development minister Smriti Irani who was replaced by Prakash Javadekar. Irani will now oversee the textile ministry. Jayant Sinha was removed as minister of state in the finance ministry and moved to civil aviation.
Chaudhary Birender Singh was shifted to the steel ministry from rural development, which will now be headed by Narendra Singh Tomar. The new environment minister in place of Javadekar is Anil Madhav Dave.
Days before the start of the monsoon session of Parliament, the portfolio of parliamentary affairs was also changed. The new minister is Ananth Kumar. He will replace M. Venkaiah Naidu, who was given charge of information and broadcasting.
The cabinet expansion and reshuffle also saw law and justice minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda being shifted to statistics and programme implementation, while Prasad is now the new law minister. Prasad’s previous portfolio, telecommunications, went to Manoj Sinha. Santosh Kumar Gangwar and Arjun Ram Meghwal were appointed ministers of state in the finance ministry.
Politically, Tuesday’s reshuffle is a strong message from Modi that the performance of individual ministers is being closely monitored at the highest level.
The reshuffle also gave a hint of the fact that the BJP is readying itself for assembly elections due over the next two years in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab, followed by polls in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The clear signal is that the BJP is looking beyond its traditional voter base to expand its national electoral footprint.
However, the reshuffle was criticized by some analysts. While some pointed to the bulge in the size of the cabinet with the induction of 19 new ministers, others claimed that the BJP had overlooked talent for perceived political gains.
The size of the Union cabinet has now expanded to 78.
The only minister to be elevated to a cabinet minister’s rank was Javadekar.
“The lack of bench strength in BJP has been a problem for the party. It was visible when the NDA came to power and yet again this time, it was prominent in the cabinet expansion. Most of the new faces inducted in the government do not inspire confidence. Modi seems to be satisfied with his senior cabinet colleagues and maybe the government thinks that it can continue to work with a handful of people," said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a New Delhi-based political analyst associated with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.
Analysts also saw some of the changes as signals to the electorate ahead of a crucial run of assembly elections over the next two years.
“The big message from Tuesday’s expansion is that the government is catering to its social and political constituencies. Social with a focus on dalits, tribals and OBC leaders and political because the exercise has kept in mind the appointment of ministers from poll-bound states," said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru.
The appointment of Maharashtrian Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale, from ally Republican Party of India (Athawale), is being linked to his potential role in the upcoming elections for Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation next year. Mumbai has a substantial population of dalits and both the BJP and the Shiv Sena have been wooing them.
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The list of newly appointed ministers of state includes three from poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, four from Rajasthan, three from Gujarat, two from Maharashtra (excluding Javadekar), two from Madhya Pradesh and one each from Uttarakhand and Assam. Representatives of two allies—Anupriya Patel from Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh and Athawale —were also inducted. Some of the new names in the cabinet are Rajya Sabha MP from Jharkhand M.J. Akbar, BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Vijay Goel and BJP MPs S.S. Ahluwalia and Ramesh Jigajinagi.
“The 19 new ministers inducted represent 10 states. There are at least 10 leaders who have served in central and state governments as ministers and officials," said an official release by the government.
Soon after the announcement of council of ministers, five ministers of state—Nihalchand, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Manuskhbhai D. Vasva and M.K. Kundariya—were dropped.
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“The flipside of Tuesday’s expansion was that we were hearing the Prime Minister is doing a rigorous exercise wherein ministers are being evaluated on the basis of their performance. The dropping of four junior ministers, however, seem inconsequential and seems more like trying to fit within stipulated numbers. It does not gel with the idea of efficiency and performance which we were hoping for," added Shastri.
Shastri was referring to the so-called monthly ministerial reviews carried out by the Prime Minister.
The oath-taking ceremony on Tuesday took place at the President’s House. Four out of 20 ministers took oath in English, while the rest chose Hindi.
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Modi first expanded his cabinet in November 2014 when he had inducted 21 new faces in his council of ministers, including defence minister Manohar Parrikar, health minister J.P. Nadda and railway minister Suresh Prabhu. At present, there are 64 Union ministers, including Modi.
The reshuffle and expansion in the council of ministers is also expected to make way for organizational changes in the BJP, which in any case are due. After the re-election of Shah as the party president, he has not announced his new team. Party leaders believe that the new team will be announced soon after the reshuffle.
Reacting to the cabinet expansion, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said in a press release: “Sole aim of expansion is a ‘vote garnering exercise’ looking at election-going States and a panic reaction against declining political graph of BJP in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. It has nothing to do with improving the lives of 125 crore Indians or providing a government dedicated to the cause of solving their problems."