Prime Minister Narendra Modi expanded his council of ministers on Sunday, with an eye on representation of diverse regions and communities, future assembly elections, as well bringing in those with policy and professional backgrounds to boost the government’s technical expertise. The reshuffle has seen some major portfolio changes, and India has a new defence, health, law, railways, rural development minister among others.
However, this exercise was accompanied by a further souring of ties with Shiv Sena; its nominee did not take oath. The new council of ministers is 66 member strong - with four cabinet, three Ministers of State (independent charge) and 14 MOS' added on Sunday.
Twenty-one new ministers took the oath of office, including former Goa chief minister Manohar Parikkar: he is the new defence minister. Finance and corporate affairs minister Arun Jaitley drops defence but will also now have charge of I and B. BJP vice president J P Nadda, who has been a long time organisation man is the new health minister - his name had cropped up in the controversial removal of AIIMS CMO Sanjeev Chaturvedi. The incumbent Harshvardhan has been given science and technology and earth sciences. Birendra Singh, who had shifted to the BJP from the Congress, is the new rural development minister.
A significant addition - and perhaps the last straw in the BJP-SS rift - was the decision of former Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu to join the BJP before he was sworn-in. He is India's new railway minister even as D Sadanand Gowda has been moved to law. Ravi Shankar Prasad retains telecom. Prabhu had a reputation of being an efficient minister in the earlier NDA government, and is the prime minister’s sherpa for the upcoming G20 summit in Australia.
The expansion of the council of ministers was clearly aimed at the upcoming state elections as the BJP seeks to expand its national footprint. Three new ministers were from Bihar, which goes to the polls in 2015; one from West Bengal, which will see fresh polls in 2016, and four from Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due in 2017.
Two Dalit ministers were added to the team in a bid to counter the perception that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is associated with upper and intermediate castes. This takes the number of Dalits in the council to five. However, representation of Muslims, women and the South remains limited in the team.
It is a much younger team with the average age of the council of ministers at 59 compared to 73 under the previous UPA government. Sunday’s expansion also took the strength of Modi’s ministry to 66. The first reshuffle of the Narendra Modi ministry had a visible RSS imprint with over half-a-dozen ministers coming from a Sangh Parivar background.
The independent ministers of state include Bandaru Dattatreya, a BJP MP from Telangana who is now in charge of labour ministry. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a senior leader from Bihar who was the party’s in charge of Maharashtra polls, too found a place as a minister of state for skill development and entrepreneurship - he will also be MoS for parliamentary affairs. Dr Mahesh Sharma, a first time MP from Gautam Buddha Nagar (Noida) constituency, who owns a chain of hospitals, is now MoS(independent) of culture and tourism ministries. Shripad Naik is now MoS (independent) in charge of AYUSH. General (retd) V K Singh has been divested of ministry of development of north east region; this portfolio has been given to MoS in PMO Jitendra Singh.
The ministers of state included Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi – a prominent party face in the media and a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh: he will be a junior minister for minority affairs and parliamentary affairs. He was an MOS with independent charge in NDA-1. Jayant Sinha – son of BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and first time MP from Hazaribagh in Jharkhand – too found a place. The Harvard Business School graduate is the new MoS(finance). Nirmala Sitharaman drops finance but retains commerce as independent charge.
Bihar, which goes to the polls next year, continued to get additional representation with former Lalu Prasad Yadav aide Ram Kripal Yadav, who will be in charge of drinking water and sanitation, and the controversial Giriraj Singh joining as minister of state of micro, small and medium enterprises. He came under fire during the election campaign for saying that those who opposed Modi could go to Pakistan.
Rajasthan too saw additional representatives, with Rajyavardhan Rathore – an Olympic medalist taking over as MoS (I and B) as well as Sanwar Lal Jat – who had defeated Sachin Pilot in Ajmer in the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP also stepped up the political offensive in West Bengal and brought in popular singer and first time MP, Babul Supriyo, as minister of state in urban development.
Prime Minister Modi congratulated all his new colleagues on Twitter, and said he was looking forward to working with them to 'accelerate India's development journey'. The cabinet, and then the full council of ministers, is scheduled to meet on Monday.