RSS, elections and bureaucrats rule the roost in what PM Modi decides
The third, and what is widely being considered the last, reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government's Council of Ministers is finally over, bringing to end weeks of speculation over possible new faces, promotions, changes in portfolios, and exits.
And the results of such an exercise, given their similarity to other political decisions taken by the Prime Minister so far, and with only around 18 months to go till the next Lok Sabha elections, provide a clear view into the rationale behind them.
While it is clear that Modi, along with his trusted lieutenant, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, are the ones who take the final call and usually take decisions that ensure they have complete control over those working with them. The role of BJP's parent body, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the lure of winning elections, and Modi's fondness and trust in bureaucrats, both former and current, is hard to miss in not only the latest rejig but also in most major decisions since coming to power in 2014.
The role of politics playing a part in choices Modi makes related to his government has been pointed out by many an objective political observer. Yet it's these three factors in particular that seem to be more important and consistently present in most of them, though in varying degrees each time.
The odd Modi-RSS couple
The presence of the first of these is also the only one where the party and the otherwise all-powerful Modi-Shah duo have the least choice over. Though both BJP and RSS try and downplay the say Sangh has, choices such as making Ram Nath Kovind the President of India, or appointments of Manohar Lal Khattar, Yogi Adityanath as Chief Ministers and numerous other ministers at state and national level reveal otherwise.
But even if such a relationship might give the feel of one's wish being the other's command that is not necessarily true at all times. Instead, a more accurate view would be that of the final decision depending on whether the leaders from Gujarat just accept RSS's demands or want to counter them. In either case, the role of the 'cultural organization' being a major factor in the final call taken by Modi is clear.
The latest additions to the government are no different as can be seen by appointment of Ananthkumar Hegde, a staunch follower of the RSS, as minister of state for finance, along with Uma Bharti retaining her standing as minister contrary to original plans, following RSS intervention. While the addition of three Brahmin faces would no doubt please the Sangh even if one of them, S P Shukla, considered a rival to Adityanath, was quite clearly selected by Modi to undercut the chief minister.
On the other hand the much hailed promotion of Nirmala Sitharaman as Defense Minister, helps ensure that Modi is able to keep RSS out from having a major presence in the all powerful Cabinet Committee on Security, helping Modi and Shah keep a tight control over crucial matters which an appointment of someone like BJP general secretary Ram Madhav or someone similar with strong association with the RSS would not have.
Such a relationship with, and dependence on, RSS, though almost a necessity for Modi, does open him to criticism similar to that he had levied against his predecessor Manmohan Singh, of playing second fiddle to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The meetings Shah holds with RSS leadership before all major decisions only make it more blatant.
Elections are the endgame
Although RSS's support to win elections both at the state and national level helps the BJP, the fact that at present even the Sangh does not have a meaningful presence throughout the length and breadth of the country is a reality. This leads to the need to tilt the electoral arithmetic in its favor before state, and now also Lok Sabha, elections by political decisions such as tinkering of the constituents of the government.
The latest changes also provide plenty of examples of this, like the appointment of faces from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the party is trying to maintain the astronomical gains it has made since 2014 for 2019. In addition, the importance of states where the BJP is trying to increase its presence before upcoming elections can also not be downplayed.
As is clear by the addition of former bureaucrat, Alphons Kannanthanam, who has close association with the Church in the state of Kerala, where the saffron party is trying to get a foothold, or the promotion of Dharmendra Pradhan, the most prominent and popular leader of the BJP in Odisha, or Hegde's rise due to his stature in Karnataka, where elections are due next year, despite having cases of beating up a doctor and hate speech against him.
These along with the promotion of Sitharaman, as first full-time woman Defense Minister, will also go far in contributing to the narrative of Modi as a champion of women empowerment. A tag that has already seen a boost with the verdict of a ban on instant triple Talaq, for which the government's and his party's machinery have tried their hardest, and quite successfully too, to hail him for. In the hope that it will help make gains among the women electorate of the country.
Though ideally, such a relationship between party needs and government decisions should not exist, the reality of Indian democracy since independence leaves little room for anything else. Especially since the loss of the theoretical understanding that winning elections was necessary to form a government rather than the other way around.
Bureaucracy rules the roost
The other group that seems to have gained from the latest exercise is that of the 'steel frame of India,' the bureaucracy, with the addition of former home secretary R K Singh, former Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh, former DDA Commissioner Alphons and retired diplomat Hardeep Puri.
And this also brings out the unique and probably the most voluntary aspect of Modi's governance model, that is, his dependence, liking, and use of bureaucrats. A model he first implemented in Gujarat as Chief Minister for more than 12 years and has continued to use since taking over as Prime Minister.
This is best described by reports of him almost sidelining ministers and dealing directly with officials in charge of various departments or from the hold over strategic affairs such as internal security, foreign relations, among others, enjoyed by former bureaucrats such as now National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, among others. This also helps put the selection of various ministers, especially, Sitharaman in perspective.
Even if some might point to such an approach having certain flaws as politicising of bureaucracy, or no bench strength of capable MP's in the party, the Prime Minister has not only stayed true to his beliefs but also opened a window for lateral entry of experts from various fields into government, something he has often talked about.
These apart, the perception of good work being rewarded is an obvious reaction with ministers such as Goyal, Sitharaman, and Pradhan who have carried the reputation of not only performing well but also toeing the line given out by the Prime Minister's Office. But the reality of performance as the main criteria is betrayed, as a true adherence to it would have seen the exit of many, from the coveted positions from the Council of Ministers. It could have also led to a sense of failure on the leadership's part as it had chosen such ministers in the first place and would go against the image of a government delivering on its promises.
So all set and done, while the various narratives in the media might point to different reasons for, and outcomes of, the changes made on Sunday, that they were in line with those taken by the Prime Minister since coming front and center of Indian politics can hardly be denied.