A ministry reshuffle that has strong political undertones
The much speculated reshuffle of the Union Council of Ministers has finally happened! Projected as the large major reshuffle prior to the 2009 polls, the reshuffle was expected to explicitly express the premium that the Prime Minister places on performance and delivery of the parties electoral promises.
After the swearing in ceremony and the announcement of the new portfolios, it is clear that the rejig has an eye on refurbishing the image of the government in terms of critical performance indicators. What are the key political takeaways in terms of who all find a place in the 76 member Council of Ministers and the manner in which responsibilities have been distributed?
Firstly, the first 40+ Council of Ministers headed by Narendra Modi was sworn in 2014 with a promise of being small in terms of government size and large in terms of governance delivery. Over time, its size has reached more or less the numbers of the earlier Council of Ministers, much closer to the cap of 82 prescribed by the Constitution. What is important is that the core decision making body, the Cabinet has been limited to just 28 senior ministers. Nearly, half the ministers (37) are Ministers of State who work under a Cabinet Minster and another 11 Ministers of State have been given independent charge of ministries. The concept of Ministers of State with independent charge has been used by successive Prime Ministers to put in place competent individuals to head ministries even though they may not have the required political seniority. Three retired bureaucrats/diplomats who have been brought into the Ministry have been made Ministers of State with independent charge. This balancing represents a shrewd act of political management by the political leadership.
Secondly, the four ministers rewarded with a promotion to Cabinet rank have clearly been recognized for their track record of performance. Two of them (Nirmala Siataraman, Piyush Goel) see a meteoric rise at least in terms of the weight of the portfolio assigned to them. Dharmendra Pradhan retains his earlier portfolio and has been given additional charge of Skill Development, a key Department in the Prime Minster's change mantra. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is the only Muslim face in the Cabinet, a slot that was vacant after Najma Heptulla had resigned. Naqvi has been elevated to the Cabinet without any change in his portfolio of Minority Affairs. The reshuffle of the portfolios of the other Cabinet Ministers is once again a reflection on past performance and expected results in the coming months.
Gadkari, who has handled Surface Transport with finesse has been given additional charge of Water Resources and more specifically Ganga Rejuvenation - a key project of the Prime Minister, linked to his constituency and with critical political implications. Smriti Irani will hold full charge of Information and Broadcasting along with Textiles and not merely as an additional responsibility. Suresh Prabhu and Uma Bharati have less prized portfolios as compared to what they handled earlier and this too sends an important political message to not merely the general public but the other Members of the Cabinet. Many would still wonder why no Minister (other than Kalraj Mishra and that too on grounds of crossing the age of 75) was dropped from the Cabinet for non-performance. Another interesting trend is this contradiction between the ranking of Ministers in the Cabinet and the
portfolios allotted to them. While those in the first four slots ( Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari) manage portfolios which do justice to their ranking, one sees the other senior ministers having very minor portfolios. It is also interesting that portfolios like Defence, Human Resources Development and Railways are handled by Ministers who are among the junior most in the 28 member Cabinet. This could be defended as shrewd balancing of political calculations with efficiency requirements, it does create a lopsided seniority in the Cabinet.
Thirdly, the former bureaucrats/diplomats included in the Council of Ministers have been assigned key portfolios as Ministers of state with independent charge. The Ministries of Power, Urban Affairs and Tourism will be handled by them and these are key sectors to the Prime Minister being able to move closer to the promises made to the electorate in the 2014 elections by the time he returns for a fresh mandate. One recalls his speech when accepting the leadership of the BJP Parliamentary Party after the elections, when he appealed to all to assess his government's record after five years in office and not before! Whether these three new Ministers with a track record of administrative experience can deliver in their new political roles will be closely watched.
Finally, beyond a shadow of doubt, this entire exercise has the clear stamp of the authority of the Prime Minister. While many of the politically sensitive steps of seeking the resignation of the outgoing ministers was left to the Party President to handle, this reminds one of the style of the 1970s and 80s which Indira Gandhi followed whenever there was a reshuffle of her Council. New entrants were informed by her and those being shown the door were communicated the same by her key aides.
Politics of course come full circle! Possibly it is about the style of a ruling party and the trappings of power.
(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a leading political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor, Jain University)