By Amulya Ganguli
More than the inclusion of Sarbananda Sonowal and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Narendra Modi’s new cabinet, which was expected, it is the unexpected exclusion of old hands like Harsh Vardhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar which is surprising.
Yet, their exits can not only be explained, but also point to an aspect of the government’s functioning which was not seen before. While it has been customary for the government to either ignore domestic and international critics or lambaste them as uninformed and biased people, the ousting of the health and information technology ministers is the first sign that the government has started taking note of adverse comments at home and abroad.
There is little doubt that Vardhan has paid the price for the mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and Prasad for his spat with Twitter when New Delhi is cozying up to Washington on strategic and medical fronts. However, the Congress has a point when it says that Vardhan has turned out to be the fall guy for the mistakes of others. Perhaps the same can be said of Prasad as well.
After all, it is known that nothing moves in the Modi government without the prime minister’s nod. If Covid patients were gasping for breath for the lack of oxygen or the vaccination drive ran aground after a promising start, the government as a whole has to share the blame and not the health minister alone.
True, no tears will be shed for him. Nor for Prasad. But what will be interesting to watch is how their successors will fare, for the Covid crisis hasn’t gone away even if it has eased a little and the Big Tech companies continue to be reluctant to abide by the official diktats.
But whatever the outcome of these issues relating to health and the social media, the cabinet reshuffle has shown that the government has become more sensitive than before to what its detractors are saying. It is not surprising that this attitudinal change has come on the eve of a series of state assembly elections, of which the one in U.P. early next year is of prime importance for the BJP.
It goes without saying that the reshuffle has been carried out with an eye on both the forthcoming state elections and the far more crucial 2024 general election. In the aftermath of the blow which the government’s image suffered because of the mishandling of the pandemic, it will be politically fatal for it to be seen to be unable to avoid any more setbacks.
It is perhaps the realization that this is the last chance for the government to improve its image before the assembly contests which has led to the seemingly drastic changes and the induction of new faces in the health and law ministries.
While the exigencies of the health ministry are known, how the suddenly promoted Kiren Rijiju from youth affairs to law handles the new portfolio when the courts have frowned on the misuse of the sedition and even a scrapped section of the IT law remains to be seen. The new law and justice minister will also be aware of the fact that the US has not taken kindly to the death of an elderly activist while still in detention.
But it is on U.P., however, on which the government’s attention appears to have been focussed, judging both from the inclusion of seven ministers from the state out of the 27 from the Other Backward Castes (OBC) category. In addition to the OBCs, there are 12 Dalit ministers, underlining the BJP’s transition from a Brahmin-bania party to one of the subalterns. The OBC factor, however, is specifically aimed at U.P. where the BJP’s main opponent is likely to be the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party.
Significantly, the big four ministries – home, finance, defence and external affairs – have been left intact, suggesting a paucity of talent, which has long been recognized as one of the BJP’s problems. Yet, none of them can be said to have come out in flying colours in the last seven years.
While the home minister’s bombast was exposed in West Bengal where the BJP fell well short of the target of 200 seats set by Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman has been engaged in an uphill struggle to rescue the economy.
In defence, Rajnath Singh has to answer whether the Chinese are occupying Indian territory along the Line of Control and S. Jaishankar has to mull over Nepal’s and Bangladesh’s dissatisfaction with Big Brother even if Dhaka can hold Amit Shah responsible for any sense of discontent in the neighbouring country because of his description of Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites”. While much of this is known, what is unknown is where does the buck stop? (IPA Service)