In concentrating a bit too much on Nirmala Sitharaman’s super elevation — to Cabinet rank and as Minister for Defence — we may be missing the wood for the trees. There may be some statistical delight in the fact that Sitharaman is independent India’s first full-time woman Defence Minister, an alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru Nehru (an institution which tilts to the Left and often to the extreme-Left), one among the many spokespersons of the BJP before she became a Rajya Sabha member and was inducted in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Cabinet as a Minister for State with independent charge of commerce, and an early advocate of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate in the build-up to the 2014 general election. But there is more to Sunday’s ministerial reshuffle than her elevation.
The changes were refreshing, and not just for the induction of new faces. Two conventional and often narrow considerations, electoral and caste, were done away with. The maximum number of inductees were from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, both of which States have no elections coming soon. The same can be said of States such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which also saw their representation rise. On the other hand, those such as Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where Assembly polls are due later this year, drew a blank. Clearly, the Prime Minister and BJP chief Amit Shah were not overly bothered by electoral politics in the immediate term.
Caste and class balances too have been given short shrift. There is no discernible movement in seeking to accommodate representatives from various castes to appease the latter. The induction of a Brahmin face, Shiv Pratap Shukla, can be interpreted as a move to balance out Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s Thakur credentials. But this analysis suffers from two flaws. The first is the Shukla is hardly an established ‘Brahmin leader’ in Uttar Pradesh. The second is that after taking to the spiritual order, Yogi Adityanath is not and does not want to be considered as a ‘Thakur leader’ in the State.
Besides trashing caste and immediate electoral considerations, the Prime Minister kept his allies — old and new — at a distance in the Sunday shake-up. The Janata Dal (United) is upset that it was not even invited for the oath-taking ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, let alone be asked to join the Union Council of Ministers. The BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, gained nothing in the new scheme of things and kept away from the function. It will be incorrect to lump the two developments together. Given its stance of embarrassing the BJP and behaving more like an opponent than a partner, the Shiv Sena could not have expected anything better. Moreover, for the BJP, there is always Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Part to reach out to, if the Sena decides to snap links. Privately, many BJP leaders, fed up with their ally’s antics, are hoping the Sena-BJP coalition collapses and their party can make a fresh beginning in the State with a less mercurial partner.
Of more curiosity is the Janata Dal (United) case. Only weeks ago, JDU leader and Bihar Chief Minister dumped his partner Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and went back to the BJP-led NDA. Within no time, a JDU-BJP Government was formed in Bihar and the JDU formally became a part of the NDA. It was taken for granted that the next reshuffle at the Centre would see the JDU enter the Union Council of Ministers. What went wrong, and to the extent that the JDU did not even attended the event on Sunday, remains a matter of speculation. But the incident has clouded the otherwise festive atmosphere in the Right-wing camp.
All this said, it would naive to believe that absolutely no political considerations were involved in the reshuffle. The 2019 Lok Sabha election is less than two years away, and a great deal of its outcome depends on the new Modi team. But performance and not caste or class affiliation has been made the cornerstone of success, unlike in previous decades of governance. Even the worst critics of the Modi regime in the media have acknowledged that the ministerial changes have aimed to provide better governance. The elevation of four Ministers of State to Cabinet rank and the reallocation of portfolios are a clear indication of the maxim, “Performance pays’.
But there have been exceptions. The non-performing Union Minister for Agriculture, Radha Mohan Singh, has escaped the axe. Maybe he could be edged out later once the JDU joins the Government at the Centre. A few Ministers from allied parties too have not done well and deserved to be booted out. But perhaps Modi didn’t want to rock the boat too much at this stage. After all, the BJP’s 350-plus target for 2019 is heavily dependent on effective partnering with regional outfits.
There has been some criticism that career professionals such as Satyapal Singh, RK Singh, Hardeep Singh Puri and KJ Alphons have been taken into ministries that are far removed from their core competence. There is a grain of truth here. However, their long administrative experience should help them get a grip soon enough in alien fields as well. Besides, if politicians without any core competence whatsoever can fit into any ministry, why discriminate against the professionals?
(Rajesh Singh is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)
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