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Never too old to retire: Why Kalraj, Najma continue in Modi govt

In the cabinet reshuffle, minority affairs minister Najma Heptulla, 76, and small and medium scale industries minister Kalraj Mishra, 75, were

india Updated: Jul 07, 2016 16:52 IST
Kumar Uttam
File photo of Union minister of minority affairs Najma Heptulla.  In an unexpected development, she and another Union minister Kalraj Mishra were retained in the second Modi cabinet reshuffle.
File photo of Union minister of minority affairs Najma Heptulla. In an unexpected development, she and another Union minister Kalraj Mishra were retained in the second Modi cabinet reshuffle. (Mujeeb Faruqui / HT Photo )

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi left out a string of BJP stalwarts from his cabinet after assuming power in 2014, government spin doctors said age was not on the side of leaders such as LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha.

Despite no formal announcement, BJP sources told the media that all of them were more than 75 years old and were unsuitable in a government focused on the youth. “All those above 75 were declared brain dead on May 26, 2014,” a caustic Sinha said later.

But two years later, Modi appears to have junked the much-touted age criterion for ministers, favouring political convenience and balancing caste and region considerations ahead of crucial state polls.

In the recent cabinet reshuffle, minority affairs minister Najma Heptulla, 76, and small and medium scale industries minister Kalraj Mishra, 75, were widely expected to be dropped but retained their seats.

There has been no official word on why they were retained. “There are some obvious reasons. There are some others that we even don’t know of,” a source who was part of the deliberation told HT. “The PM didn’t explain it to us nor did we ask him,” he added.

But experts said Mishra was retained with an eye on polls in Uttar Pradesh next year. The 76-year-old is the BJP’s tallest leader among the Brahmins and dropping him would have hurt the party among the crucial community that is being wooed by rival Bahujan Samaj Party.

“One ministerial berth is not as important as the perception that dropping Mishra might have had created. Our rivals could have had used this to their advantage,” a BJP functionary said.

But even insiders couldn’t offer a convincing argument for Heptulla’s retention other than her being a prominent Muslim face.

“She turned 75 last year and wasn’t pleased when some colleagues put up a poster outside her residence and the BJP headquarters congratulating her on the occasion. Even she was not sure of being retained,” another BJP leader said. Her name was also doing the rounds for a gubernatorial assignment.

Others point out that this is not the first time the age criterion has been selectively enforced.

Recently, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan knocked out two detractors using the age rule. Home minister Babulal Gaur (86) and PWD minister Sartaj Singh (76) resisted the move, but gave in under pressure from the RSS.

“Is this the respect we should get for our sweat and blood given to the party? Even a terrorist is given an opportunity to present his side. Are we worse than a terrorist?” an irate Gaur had told HT last month.

Sources said the age bar was created as a tool to keep detractors out rather than a policy to be adhered to. It was invoked in 2014 as it was the only way the BJP could keep out Advani (88) and Joshi (82), both founding members of the party who mentored Modi at different points of time but fell out with him.

“When we were invoking the rule, we did not know others would be weeded out. It turned out to be a carrom board game wherein a strike was taking at some other disk and we ended up pocketing many more,” a senior cabinet minister said.

Among the casualties were Sinha (83) and Subramanian Swamy (76), who nursed ministerial ambitions.