NEW DELHI :
A new Union government has formally taken charge in New Delhi, yet again under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, creating history as the first non-Congress government to win a consecutive term with a majority.
The 58-member council of ministers that was sworn in on Thursday included several surprises and significant omissions—there was no Janata Dal (United) representative, for instance—from the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA). There were 26 new faces in the council of ministers, reflecting the emerging political power balance in the country defined by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the principal pole of Indian politics.
The inaugural ceremony held in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan captured this cultural shift: party workers, including a 700- strong contingent from Modi’s home state Gujarat, were present in the audience, which in the past would be dominated by the capital’s power brokers.
One of the biggest moments of the evening, although largely expected, came when BJP president Amit Shah took his oath. Shah, a consummate planner and political strategist, will be part of the new nucleus in the cabinet, which for the first time will be without the services of two key veterans: Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, who have opted out. This is set to give a different dynamic to the cabinet and governance.
Unsurprisingly, Smriti Irani, the giant killer who unseated Rahul Gandhi in his family borough of Amethi, was re-inducted into the cabinet—to a loud cheer from the crowd. A surprise addition was former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
Significant omissions of the evening were former women and child welfare minister Maneka Gandhi, health minister J.P. Nadda, trade minister Suresh Prabhu, civil aviation minister of state (MoS) Jayant Sinha and health and family welfare minister of state Anupriya Patel.
Among the 58 inductees in the wider council of ministers including Modi, there are 26 new ministers—with seven in the Union cabinet, including Amit Shah, former Uttarakhand chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank and former Jharkhand chief minister Arjun Munda.
Three women were sworn in as cabinet ministers, including Nirmala Sitharaman, who was the defence minister, Irani and Punjab MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Shiromani Akali Dal, BJP’s alliance partner in Punjab. The number of women MoS remained the same, with Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and two new MPs—including Renuka Singh Saruta from Chhatisgarh and Debasree Chaudhuri from West Bengal. The previous cabinet had six women; this one has three.
The composition of the council of ministers reflects the imprimatur of Modi, who, unlike the last time, paid little heed to the precedence of accommodating the choices of allies.
The effort to manage political constituencies key to BJP was visible in the induction of Giriraj Singh, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Sanjeev Balyan—all of whom reflect the hard right wing of BJP. At the same time, care was given in accommodating small caste groups by inducting Som Prakash and Prahlad Singh Patel from Madhya Pradesh.
The crowd, which was invited for the ceremony, also had more representation from different Lok Sabha constituencies. Of the 8,000 people who attended the ceremony, at least 600-700 came from Gujarat, and several from Odisha and the southern states.
The ceremony marks the first time in India’s history that a non-Congress government has returned to power for a consecutive term after winning a majority. BJP won 303 seats on its own in the 545-member Lok Sabha in the seven-phase national polls; including the allies, NDA won 353 seats.
Shah’s entry into the cabinet has left a question mark about the top job in the ruling party even as a number of crucial state assembly elections loom over the next one year.
Shah’s tenure as the chief of BJP is scheduled to end in January next year. The options before BJP are: either he could continue to be the party president while being in the government or the party appoints an interim BJP president for six months to complete Shah’s tenure. Senior leaders of BJP also talk about a third option of holding party elections to find a new party president.
The cabinet saw Maharashtra in focus, with as many as eight ministers, including Nitin Gadkari, Prakash Javadekar and Piyush Goyal, inducted from the state. NDA ally Shiv Sena got a cabinet berth, with Arvind Sawant taking oath. Maharashtra is key for BJP as it goes to the polls later this year. BJP, in alliance with the Shiv Sena, won assembly elections in 2014.
From Rajasthan, where BJP along with its allies won all 25 Lok Sabha seats, three cabinet ministers took oath. The North-East, where BJP made gains, saw one minister from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiren Rijiju, and another from Assam, Rameshwar Teli. V. Muraleedharan, the BJP Kerala unit president and a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, was also included.
The majority of the cabinet is between the age group of 56 and 70, with Smriti Irani (43) the youngest.
The outdoor ceremony in the Rashtrapati Bhawan lasted just over two hours. Among those present were the leaders of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, besides the president of the Kyrgyz Republic and the prime minister of Mauritius. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former party chief Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh also attended the ceremony among other political leaders.
Modi’s outgoing council of ministers had 25 cabinet ministers, 11 ministers of state with independent charge and 34 ministers of state. This time round, 24 cabinet ministers and 33 ministers of state took oath of office.
The new cabinet has representations from partners of the NDA including Ram Vilas Paswan from the Lok Janshakti Party (Bihar), Arvind Sawant from the Shiv Sena (Maharashtra) and Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Shiromani Akali Dal (Punjab).