A New Look Council of Ministers: What is the deeper message?
Prime Minister Modi's mid-term rejig of his Council of Ministers was preceded by a lot of speculation. It caught a lot of analysts, commentators and observers off-guard. It has the true stamp of the Prime Minister's style - an element of suspense sprinkled with a lot of surprises! In important ways,it signaled an attempt at course correction and was a shrewd exercise in image building. That clearly is the big picture. When one were to look at details - who is in and who is out; who got what all and what is its political significance and governance implications, a clear rationale emerges.
A searching second look at the Ministry was long overdue. Two years into the second term and facing an unprecedented pandemic, this exercise is being closely watched for what it does in terms of course correction of the government and its administration. There is a clear pattern to those who have been dropped. There seems to have been a combination of three factors that were at work. There is a lot of talk of Non-Performing Assets (NPA's). Here it was a case of Non-Performing, Politically dispensable Liabilities (NPL's). Some of those shown the door were clearly perceived as being non-performing. Very little in terms of achievement was visible during their terms. Many held crucial portfolios and much was expected in those departments. Others were political dispensable. They may have been highly visible but carried very little political weight in terms of a mass base. Their exit would not harm the prospects of the party. Finally, there were those who were clear liabilities either in terms of lacking political finesse or in their inability to build a right public image. All those dropped would fit into one or more of these categories.
Now for those brought into the Ministry, elevated to the Cabinet and given key responsibilities. Three factors seem to explain the logic behind the choices made. Firstly, there is clearly an attempt to bring in some element of rationality in the clubbing together of portfolios. The Ministers handling the top four ministries (Home, Defence, Finance and Foreign Affairs) have been untouched. There is some effort at bringing together Ministries under the joint command of a Cabinet Minister. Education and Skill Development have been rightly combined. As have Industry, Commerce and Textiles.
A second factor clearly is loyalty to the leadership and proven trust in their abilities. Combination of ministries under one minister can in some cases, not be explained in terms of rationalization of responsibilities but in the level of trust that the leadership has in the concerned minister. This possibly explains Urban Development and Petroleum being jointly handled by Hardeep Puri, Railways and Information Technology being entrusted to Ashwini Vaishnaw and Sports and Youth Affairs with Information and Broadcasting being placed under Anurag Thakur. Mansukh Mandavya's being allotted Health has much to do with his support to the Prime Minister in handling the oxygen supply crisis as Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers.
A third factor is clearly political accommodation. This exercise has witnessed a social engineering like never before. Close to one -thirds of the ministers hail from the Backward Castes. The fact that a large number of ministers represent tribal groups and the presence of those from different segments from among the Dalits is a reflection of a conscious attempt to represent a social coaltion. Political accommodation can also be seen in terms of regional and state-wise representation. It is true that poll bound states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have a higher representation.
There is no empirical proof from the past to show that providing ministerial berths to those from a state or a particular social group enhances the prospects of the party in that state/ social group. It may be more a case of providing symbolic representation and also deal with factionalism within the party in a particular state. Most of the new entrants are at the level of Minister of State. Their role would be to assist the Cabinet Ministers as also to provide symbolic representation. It must also be noted that the new entrants bring with them their past experience of working at the state and local level.
This brings one to a key factor. If one looks at the key portfolio allocation at the level of the Cabinet, one notices that key tasks have been assigned either to those who were already in the Cabinet or were elevated to the Cabinet from the position of a Minister of State. Save for Ashiwni Vaishnaw, there is no new entrant in the Ministry who has been assigned a key portfolio. Clearly, there is an inner circle in the cabinet,of ministers trusted by the leadership with a proven record of both loyalty and performance. While four positions have been assigned to new entrants from the non-BJP parties in the NDA, their portfolios remain generally considered low-key, a trend one notices since 2014.
A review of the entrants into the Cabinet shows a slight tilt towards Rajya Sabha membership. Of the 8 new entrants, five are Rajya Sabha members and of the 7 elevated to the Cabinet from Minister of State status, 3 are Rajya Sabha members. Thus of the 15 new entrants to the Cabinet, more are RajyaSabha members than directly elected to the Lok Sabha.
It is clear that the performance of the new Council of Ministers will be closely monitored. Targets would have been sent and the same would be assessed at regular intervals. One does not rule out another rejig prior to the next Lok Sabha polls to do a further course correction.
(Dr. Sandeep Shastri has been a keen student of Karnataka politics for over four decades)
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