A delightful story doing the rounds in Lutyens’ Delhi says a lot about politics in the national capital. In the initial list of MPs to be inducted into the ministry, it seems, the name of C.R. Chaudhary from Rajasthan did not figure. But once the list was leaked, BJP circles pointed out that P.P. Chaudhary, a Supreme Court advocate from Rajasthan whose name was on the list, was not, in fact, a Jat; he belonged to a community known as Seervi. That was when the other Chaudhary, a Jat, was hurriedly added to the list. Apocryphal or not, the story takes away some of the shine from the carefully orchestrated ‘stories’ about the managerial precision with which the Narendra Modi and Amit Shah carried out the ministerial reshuffle.
According to these reports, the duo spent hours over performance audit reports of ministers and potential ministers before vetting the names. The reshuffle was done with “clinical ruthlessness”, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express. Other commentators said the rejig sent out two messages: perform or perish; and don’t take the PM for granted or mess with him.
With the dust settling down on the most ambitious rejig so far, in which he dropped five junior ministers, inducted 19 new faces and effected two-dozen changes in portfolios, Modi took off on a five-day visit to Africa, leaving Shah to smoothen ruffled feathers, if any. In fact, Shah’s unmistakable imprint prompted some commentators to call it Shah’s reshuffle, not Modi’s. Rarely has any party chief dominated an area said to be entirely the PM’s preserve. While Manmohan Singh was criticised for taking ‘orders’ from his party president, Modi was lauded for working in sync with Shah.
Shah is credited with negotiating the induction of the youngest of the new faces, Anupriya Patel of the Apna Dal, who was expelled from her party soon after by her mother Krishna. Whether she lays claim to a part of the Apna Dal or joins the BJP, the expulsion is a minor setback for Shah, who has been working hard for a merger. An Apna Dal vertically split between mother and daughter could cast a shadow on Shah’s gambit of inducting Anupriya, an emerging Kurmi leader known for her public speaking skills, and slated for a key role in Shah’s plans for UP. This would depend on how the other Apna Dal MPs react and how well she mobilises her followers. Or Shah may still be able to persuade Krishna and her other daughter, Pallavi, to fall in line.
Barring this minor setback, Shah has almost had a free run. Some insiders claim Shah had a hand in Smriti Irani’s ouster from HRD as he didn’t want her role in JNU and the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad to come in the way of the party’s UP campaign. With the BJP pitted against BSP, Irani in the high-profile ministry would have become a poll issue and put off the Dalit voters.
Moreover, a case related to her allegedly false claims about her educational qualification is still pending before a court. An adverse judgement while she remained the HRD minister would have affected the party’s morale and prospects. But the damage could be contained in the less high-profile textile ministry, say insiders.
Shah’s social engineering led to the induction of a number of Dalit and OBC leaders from UP, besides a number of Patel and Adivasi MPs from Gujarat, where the BJP is trying to stave off a serious challenge in the election to be held next year.
The reshuffle has firmly established the PM and the BJP president as the duo who matter. As if to underscore his position, Shah on Tuesday posed at Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, in front of the “world’s largest charkha” put up by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, with Dharmendra Pradhan, Giriraj Singh and other Union ministers. Observers noted that the government was no longer being run by the Modi-Shah-Jaitley trinity and looked increasingly like a ‘two-man’ show.
His record as Gujarat CM in keeping the RSS and its affiliates on a tight leash had led political pundits to predict that PM Modi would repeat the feat by marginalising the RSS at the national level. His perceived snub to Subramanian Swamy in an interview with Times Now and his refusal to shunt Arun Jaitley out of the finance ministry are being cited as proof that the PM has kept the RSS at bay.
The rejig has a clear imprint of BJP chief Amit Shah
But if one has to read the tea leaves, the rejig has given out mixed messages. One of those dropped is Agra MP Ramshankar Katheria, who was junior minister in HRD—the only representative in the council of ministers from the region known as Braj Bhoomi—and is believed to be close to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. A befuddled Katheria said he had no clue why he had been dropped, and later came up with the alibi that seeing the frequency with which he participated in agitations, the BJP preferred him in the party organisation.
But the reshuffle has left untouched several ministers with equally close RSS links, among them Sanjeev Baliyan of Muzaffarnagar riots infamy and Giriraj Singh, known for his inflammatory comments against minority communities. Nor has the prime minister changed the primary portfolios of Niranjan Jyoti, Mahesh Sharma and Uma Bharti, none of whose performance is rated highly.
Significantly, the reshuffle has left the important HRD ministry under the charge of two ministers with “impeccable pedigree” (read long association and family links with the RSS)—Prakash Javadekar and his deputy Mahendra Nath Pandey, who not only insisted on taking over charge at a particular time but also insisted on facing a particular direction, forcing his staff to shift the table in his office.
With one-third of the council of ministers and nearly half of the new inductees having worked in the RSS, the outfit’s continuing imprint on the cabinet cannot be ignored. The PM and his ministers may not have given a report card to the RSS since September 2015, but there is little doubt that the reshuffle was carried out in consultation with the Sangh. Reports suggest that the list of probable ministers was sent to the outfit’s Delhi headquarters in Jhandewalan the day before the reshuffle, and only after it was vetted were some of the names informally leaked to the media.
With Shah as the BJP president, the party and the government seem to be acting seamlessly in tandem. In the UPA, by contrast, it had become commonplace for the media to take potshots at the party and the government for running on parallel tracks and never converging.
The reshuffle also helped cement the image of the prime minister as a ‘clinically ruthless’ leader. On Monday, July 4, the prime minister met a select group of journalists and let out that he would be “expanding” the ministry the next day. In extensive but almost identical ‘interviews’ to several newspapers, he assessed his government’s performance and claimed that performance would be the only key while inducting ministers.
Even after the new ministers were sworn in, there was no indication of a reshuffle. So much so that MoS (Finance) Jayant Sinha attended the meeting of the Financial Stability and Development Council during the day. He had also lined up appointments for the next 10 days.
By late evening, however, the reshuffle was announced and Sinha found himself out of the finance ministry. His personal staff and officials attached to him confess that the news came as a bolt from the blue and they were left scrambling to wind up.
The pattern, say BJP insiders, was uniform with ministers given no inkling of the imminent changes. The prime minister had invited the new inductees for ‘tea’ in the afternoon but had given no clue to what had apparently been plotted.
Stripping Jaitley of Information and Broadcasting, though widely anticipated, was designed to signal that no matter how close he may be to a ministerial colleague, nobody should take him for granted. Nobody knows whether Jaitley was consulted on the choice of the two new ministers of state attached to him, namely Santosh Gangwar (significantly, from Uttar Pradesh) and former-weaver-turned-IAS officer Arjun Ram Mehwal. But it seems unlikely.
Similarly, allowing Ravishankar Prasad to retain Information Technology but stripping him of Communication was apparently the prime minister’s way of telling the minister that his closeness to industry had been noticed. It was not a secret in industry circles that Prasad was clueless about telecom and so the PM’s decision to place Manoj Sinha, an alumnus of IIT-BHU, there with independent charge in addition to his responsibilities as MoS (Railways) is seen as an inspired move.
While the reshuffle prompted most commentators to declare that the prime minister has been business-like in the way he did it, putting performance above other considerations, questions remain. It is not known what the PM’s performance audit showed up the iffy records of ministers such as Uma Bharti, Najma Heptullah and Kalraj Mishra among a host of ministers who seem to have performed as indifferently as many other colleagues. But the fact that they were left untouched calls the bluff on the carefully cultivated message that performance of ministers was the only consideration.
While Jayant Sinha is said to have paid a price for his father Yashwant Sinha’s criticism of the government’s policies and performance, the restoration of the Law ministry to Ravishankar Prasad is widely interpreted in political circles as a rebuff again to Jaitley. It is common knowledge that all the law officers of the government owe personal allegiance to Arun Jaitley and despite not being the law minister, the former lawyer has a wide network in the judiciary. Sadanand Gowda’s failure is stated to be his inability to open independent channels, which Prasad will now be expected to achieve.
The promotion of Prakash Javadekar, the only junior minister to be elevated as cabinet minister, and Piyush Goyal are deemed to be rewards for their good performance. While Javadekar diligently gave environmental clearances to proposals from industry, Goyal has long been touted as a top performer as MoS (Power, Coal and Renewable Energy). By giving him charge of mines as well, the Prime Minister has tried to ensure faster clearances and decision-making in the energy sector. But whether this will work or not remains to be seen as each of these sectors is both large and complicated. While having a single minister in charge of both forward and backward linkages appears attractive, centralisation of power at one place may not be an unmixed blessing.
The hype built around the reshuffle would indicate that the prime minister is happy with the performance of the five heavyweights in home (Rajnath Singh), finance (Arun Jaitley), external affairs (Sushma Swaraj), defence (Manohar Parrikar) and railways (Suresh Prabhu). But that may well be because the prime minister, without any portfolio himself, takes a personal interest in each of these areas, where ministers matter little and the PMO is all-powerful. Expressing no-confidence in himself was clearly not an option.
Ministers in the Modi government are clearly expected to keep a low profile, do the bidding of the PMO and the party, keep Amit Shah posted and ensure that bureaucrats do not take them for a ride. The rest is taken care of by the PMO and the RSS. So, when can one expect another reshuffle? Perhaps before the next round of assembly elections in 2018?