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Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday inducted 36 new faces into his council of ministers, promoted seven junior ministers to independent or cabinet roles, and dropped 12 ministers, including the ministers of health, education, information technology, law, environment and broadcasting, in his biggest reshuffle in the past seven years.

The changes seem to have been motivated by performance or lack of it; the need to accommodate allies, find room for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders who were asked to sacrifice regional aspirations and include lateral entrants; and an eye on coming elections in major states. Of the 36 new ministers, three are from allies of the BJP.

“I congratulate all the colleagues who have taken an oath today and wish them the very best for their ministerial tenure. We will continue working to fulfil the aspirations of the people and build a strong and prosperous India," tweeted Modi shortly after the swearing-in ceremony.

The big reset
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The big reset

A meeting of the Union cabinet is likely at 5pm on Thursday, followed by a meeting of the council of ministers at 7pm, said people aware of the developments.

Prominent among the new cabinet ministers are Rajya Sabha member Jyotiraditya Scindia, former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Bhupender Yadav.

They were inducted on the basis of their strong record as administrators and organizational capabilities.

“Under the able leadership of honourable Shri Modi ji, I will follow the ideology of the party and discharge any responsibility given to me to the best of my ability and dedication," said Scindia.

“Thank you, Hon’ble PM @narendramodiji, for this great opportunity to serve the nation and for your encouraging words. Under your guidance, we will dedicate ourselves to build a strong and prosperous India," tweeted Sonowal.

And prominent among those dropped are former information technology and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, former environment and Information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar, former health minister Harsh Vardhan and former education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’.

They were dropped at a time covid-19 has ravaged the healthcare sector and derailed education, and when India is locked in a legal tussle with prominent social media companies over the country’s new IT rules.

Five themes are evident in the reshuffle, which takes the overall size of Modi’s council of ministers to 77, excluding the PM, just four short of the maximum possible 81.

The first is performance appraisal, and it is exemplified in the removal of Harsh Vardhan as health minister. While no causes are ever given for ministerial reshuffles, it is no secret that Vardhan’s handling of the pandemic has been inadequate. Experts said this is likely the closest the Modi government will come to admitting it could have managed the pandemic better.

The second is the need to accommodate lateral entrants such as Scindia as well as leaders such as Sonawal who gave up regional leadership roles (the BJP retained Assam under Sonawal but decided to make Himanta Biswa Sarma the chief minister).

The third is the imperative to accommodate allies. The Modi council, before the reshuffle, had only one representative of another party – the Republican Party of India’s Ramdas Athawale.

It now has four ministers from four allies (The Janata Dal (United), Lok Janshakti Party and Apna Dal are the new ones), which should go some way in blunting criticism that the BJP can’t work with allies or does not treat them well.

Four, the importance of looking ahead to coming assembly elections, especially in crucial states, and facilitate leadership transitions in some states.

In Karnataka, for instance, it is widely known that the central leadership of the BJP would like the incumbent chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, 78, to make way for someone else.

Among the new ministers named is one of his closest aides Shobha Karandlaje. And seven of the new ministers (including Anupriya Patel from Apna Dal) are from Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in 2022.

Five, the desire to reinforce the social engineering strategy of creating a Hindu bloc by consolidating Hindu voters across other backward classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs). This has worked to the BJP’s advantage in many states. In the council, 27 are from OBCs, and 20 belong to SCs/STs. Overall, this takes the total number of ministers from OBCs and SCs/STs in the 77-strong council to 47.

The Congress welcomed the new ministers but took a dig at the Prime Minister.

“I am hopeful that the new cabinet will work with great integrity and honesty for the nation. I am optimistic that @PMOIndia will not wrest all the powers & ministers will be able to delegate their responsibilities freely," said Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

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