Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a cabinet reshuffle in two parts: One that appeared cosmetic and “more of the same” in the first half of the day and the other calculated to befuddle the media much later at night! To take the second part first, the announcement of the portfolios was a game changer moving the exercise from a mere cabinet expansion to a genuine reshuffle. The most significant step was the shifting of the high-profile HRD minister, Smriti Irani, to textiles. Just a few months ago, Irani had mounted an often shrill campaign against various student protests, notably in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, seemingly with the approval of Mr Modi. She has suddenly been replaced by the soft- spoken man for all “reasons,” Prakash Javadekar. Presumably this represents a change in tack brought on by adverse publicity not only in the media but also among India’s burgeoning young voters, 150 million of whom cast their votes for the first time in 2014 in an election that swept Mr Modi to power.
The other major changes involve the information and broadcasting portfolio transferred from the overworked Arun Jaitley to Venkaiah Naidu, and the law ministry being taken from a non- performing Sadanda Gowda and given to the more energetic and high-profile Ravi Shankar Prasad, who incidentally had the law portfolio earlier . This suggests that the Modi government plans to go into overdrive in the official media in the year ahead, which will see crucial elections in UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. It also suggests that serious efforts will be taken to push through legal reforms in areas such as land acquisition, the environment and labour — all considered to be crucial to Mr Modi’s industrialisation plans.
The appointment of M J Akbar as minister of state in the external affairs ministry is perhaps geared to help shoulder the existing burden of Sushma Swaraj, who is not in good health at the moment. Besides Mr Akbar is known to have strong connections throughout the oil-rich West Asian countries. The composition of the new council of ministers, when first announced at 11 am yesterday, was clearly seen as an exercise in social engineering designed to provide the BJP with an image of a “rainbow coalition” that the Congress once had and that would further its cause particularly in UP, fragmented as it is along caste and religious lines. However, later in the night the entire exercise quite obviously became more than just that.