New Delhi: A day after the first major reshuffle and expansion of the Narendra Modi cabinet, analysts described the exercise as a mix of realpolitik and performance appraisal and said it underlined a sense of purpose that seemed to suggest some heavy policymaking ahead.

The analysts also see the expansion as a move directed at enhancing the government’s bandwidth and bench strength.

“The focus is clearly on governance and aptitude of those being inducted. For instance, in his previous avatar as the power minister, Suresh Prabhu came up with the landmark legislation of Electricity Reforms Act, 2003," said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst, referring to the new minister for railways Prabhu.

In May, at the time of announcing his cabinet, Modi said no one above the age of 75 would be made a minister. His government subsequently abandoned the concept of ministerial panels that the previous regime had been partial to, especially to address key policy issues. And, ahead of the changes in cabinet, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) undertook a massive reshuffle of the bureaucracy, at both the top and middle levels.

In a major cabinet reshuffle on Sunday that left many incumbent ministers on the tenterhooks, Modi appointed 21 ministers, including four cabinet ministers, three ministers of state (independent charge) and 14 ministers of state.

On Monday, according to the Press Information Bureau, 10 out of the 21 cabinet ministers inducted took charge of their respective offices.

Analysts say the reshuffle fills gaps and addresses the need of departments that require urgent attention to ensure a quick economic revival. Infrastructure is a key area of focus for the government and Prime Minister Modi is believed to be particularly keen to see a turnaround of the department.

The change at the helm of railway ministry is being seen as a move to speed up reforms and improve the finances of Indian Railways. The government, in September, created a committee chaired by economist Bibek Debroy to suggest ways in which the Railway Board needs to be restructured and also avenues to raise money for large railway projects. Prabhu, some of the analysts said, might have more success than his predecessor Sadananda Gowda, who has been moved to the law ministry, in driving change in the moribund department.

Hands-on PM

The expansion and reshuffle also increases the bandwidth of what was originally a relatively inexperienced cabinet, say analysts.

Perhaps as a result, Modi has been a hands-on Prime Minister, according to bureaucrats. Many have interacted directly with him without their ministers being present.

“All power vests in the prime minister’s office (PMO) and it should rightly so. All of us have been working on the double," said a secretary who asked not to be identified.

“Things like monthly reviews of work in progress and regular status updates" are now the norm, added a senior telecom ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The changes at the ministerial level have put the necessary pressure on the government departments, making the internal process and administrative operations more effective. One of the problems with bureaucracy has been the very defensive way of working of bureaucrats. They used to think even if I did something, I might be held responsible after years, so it’s better not to put my neck into things. In that sense, the Prime Minister has stilled some confidence into the bureaucrats. Pressure is there, and it should be there to deliver," another secretary ranked official said, requesting anonymity.

New cabinet

With Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal heading for elections next, Modi picked eight of the 21 ministers inducted in Sunday’s cabinet expansion from these three states, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks to expand its footprint across the northern and eastern parts of the country. The prime minister included four ministers from Uttar Pradesh (which goes to polls in 2017), three from Bihar (2015) and one from West Bengal (2016).

“Also, other than preparing for elections, there is a lot of focus on getting talent from outside of Delhi, which is a shift from the previous governments," Mrug said.

The expansion of the cabinet by almost half came in for some flak from the Congress party, which said this went against the NDA’s promise of minimum government and maximum governance. It also alleged that some of the ministers have criminal cases against them. Seven of the 21 new ministers face prosecution, taking the total in the 66-member cabinet to almost one-third, a higher proportion than before the weekend expansion, Reuters reported.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley said any suggestions that there were criminals in the cabinet were “completely baseless".

“The Congress party should confine itself to discussing the quality of governance that the NDA is giving rather than resorting to baseless allegations," Jaitley said.

Remya Nair, Elizabeth Roche, Ragini Verma, Anuja, Pretika Khanna, Moulishree Shrivastava and Shouvik Ghosh contributed to this story.

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