Cabinet reshuffle: Modi’s ship of state is now gaining momentum

  • Ashok Malik
  • Updated: Nov 10, 2014 20:51 IST

Structuring a government is never a simple task in a polity as complex as India’s. The government’s priorities, administrative capacities of individuals and the political messaging and symbolism of including certain MPs all play a part. In that sense, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet expansion/reshuffle on Sunday completes a few circles and fixes gaps that stayed after the first round on May 26.

The outcome is not perfect — it cannot be perfect, for that is the nature of politics — but it does offer us important clues as to the thinking of Modi and the direction he is giving his government and party. Politically, this Cabinet represents a strong effort at projecting the BJP as a pan-Indian party, representative of a variety of communities and regions.

True, the south is under-represented — simply, the BJP has fewer MPs to choose from — but that needs to be seen alongside the reality that aside from Kerala every major state has a direct stake in Modi’s team.

There has been a fine balance of identity politics and identifying administrative excellence. Caste and community equations were less relevant in the May 2014 mandate but remain Indian realities. As such, the incorporation of Bhumihar, Jat and Rajput ministers from the Hindi heartland states — all of them from communities that backed Modi strongly — has been a feature of this phase.

On the other hand, key infrastructure and potentially ‘lucrative’ ministries have been reserved for trusted performers and those whose reputation is beyond reproach. As prime minister, Modi cannot guarantee that no minister will ever do anything untoward. Yet, he has given critical portfolios to those whose conduct has been above reproach.

The arrival of Manohar Parrikar at the defence ministry and at the strategic high table in the Cabinet is a case in point. Like Modi, he comes from a western coastal state. His instincts will be more sensitive to India’s maritime security and aspirations, rather than to the stultifying continentalism that has traditionally trapped the Delhi elite.

Suresh Prabhu’s takeover of the railway ministry is also significant. Prabhu is a rare talent in government — a hard worker, a details man, but also someone blessed with a broader vision. In the 30 years before the Modi government took office, there have been only two occasions when Rail Bhavan had a minister who thought strategically and with a longer-term view: Madhavrao Scindia in the Rajiv Gandhi years and Nitish Kumar in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee period. Other ministers have tended to treat Indian Railways as a job creator for their constituents or used their time to introduce unviable trains to please MPs who badgered them.

In the same decades, a country like China has deployed the railways strategically, to build rapid-speed networks and link all major cities, taking pressure off roads, and also pushing trans-border rail corridors with its Central Asian and now even South Asian neighbours. In contrast, Indian Railways has languished, pulled down by an absence of ambition.

Another key priority of the Modi government is skilling, so instrumental if the one million Indians entering the workforce every month are to get employment and if the ‘Make in India’ slogan is to have a meaningful impact on the ground. Though an experienced hand — he served in the commerce and the civilian aviation ministries under Vajpayee — Rajiv Pratap Rudy was surprisingly left out of the government in May. Many felt this was unfair, given he had won a pulsating election in Saran (Bihar) against Rabri Devi. Now he has been compensated with not just a ministry, but a ministry that is at the heart of the Modi project.

The biggest loser on Sunday is a short-sighted politician who wasn’t around at all: Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray. Obstinate at the best of times, Modi has been unwilling to succumb to blackmail from allied parties. In this, the Shiv Sena has misread him and misjudged the current mood. The switchover of Prabhu — the one Sena man Modi wanted in his government — and the snubbing of the Sena suggest that the BJP is serious about an electoral future beyond the Thackerays. A sustained reconciliation now appears difficult.

The clutter and noise of political considerations — of identity and personality, factionalism and regionalism — can be overwhelming. It informs every ministry-making exercise. To Modi’s credit, he has not allowed these factors to crowd out the essential theme of his government: Infrastructure and the economy. In the end, it is here he will be tested.

As Modi’s government approaches the Budget of February 2015 — perhaps the most important Budget of his five-year term — he has equipped the finance ministry as best as he can. Arun Jaitley is free of heavy-duty multitasking and of handling the very demanding defence ministry. With his business background and familiarity with international finance, Jayant Sinha is as good a junior minister as possible. In recent weeks, the technocratic and bureaucratic team at the ministry has been completely revamped as well.

This is only fair. After all, what the finance ministry and the economic managers of this government do in the next four months will determine the coming four years. Their time is now.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal

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