2 min read.Updated: 08 Jul 2021, 06:04 AM ISTLivemint
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new team of ministers takes charge at a moment of anxiety over governance. But our need for efficiency on this score couldn’t escape a political calculus
In a democracy like ours, cabinet reshuffles are signalling devices as much as course-correction tools. The mix employed reflects a matrix of concerns that can range from electoral appeal to governance efficiency, with a link between the two an ideal that doesn’t always withstand the rough and tumble of politics, as our ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could attest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overhaul on Wednesday of his council of ministers was preceded by news of health minister Harsh Vardhan’s resignation. This exit signified a recognition of poor performance on the covid pandemic, a parameter of evaluation that could overwhelm others in public eyes, and his replacement with Mansukh Mandaviya suggests a desire to make a fresh start on this front. And on others, too. As many as 43 leaders took oaths of office, with 36 new members inducted and seven existing ones elevated. While domain expertise may have played a role in some picks, such as Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the exercise laid also emphasis on the induction of BJP leaders with popular sway and specific representation of identities that could help the party draw votes in upcoming polls.
As shake-ups go, it was big. The run-up to the event also saw the exit of at least a dozen other ministers appointed after the BJP’s big victory in the general election of 2019, notably of heavyweights who held the infotech, law, education, labour and information and broadcasting portfolios, which have been turned over to Ashwini Vaishnaw, Kiren Rijiju, Dharmendra Pradhan, Bhupender Yadav and Anurag Thakur respectively. Failure in these fields wasn’t as stark as in healthcare, but they matter for the party’s engagement of stakeholders to effect changes that could face resistance. While civil aviation for former Congressman Jyotiraditya Scindia, who boasts of a Stanford MBA, could be a push for technocratic talent, it’s better seen as a reward for his switchover with a bunch of legislators that enabled the BJP to grab power in Madhya Pradesh. The inclusion of Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal may have been a pacifier. The regional and caste galleries being played to by the BJP were apparent in the line-up as well. With battleground state Uttar Pradesh (UP) headed for polls next year, a group-identity calculus was evident in those taken aboard from there. The support of Other Backward Classes had been pivotal to the BJP’s rise to power, both in UP and at the Centre, which could explain a tweak of the team’s upper-caste profile in favour of other groups. Finer arithmetic was at work too. Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal was known to have influence over Kurmis, for instance, while R.C.P. Singh’s Janata Dal (United) also has an OBC base. The empowerment of leaders such as Meenakshi Lekhi and Shobha Karandlaje helped signal a better gender balance in the country’s power structure, even as the induction of Shantanu Thakur, a Matua leader from West Bengal, was indicative of an eye on a state considered ‘in play’ by the BJP.
In all, it was a shake-up that could keep all ministries on their toes—which would be welcome. Yet, we remain under a top-heavy dispensation, with Modi’s stamp of authority visible on virtually every aspect of how we are governed. This was the mandate of 2019, in a way, and the composition of his new team offers no reason to expect a shift. If we are to meet the challenges we face, however, the delegation of decisions may need to be a priority. The Centre must govern better. Efficacy is not an attribute that only vaccines need to show.