Resignations Indicate BJP Is Going for Optics, Not Governance, in Possible Cabinet Reshuffle

At least five Union ministers tendered their resignations on August 31 after meeting with party president Amit Shah.

Giant cardboard cut out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah are displayed in New Delhi, India March 15, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

Giant cardboard cut out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah are displayed in New Delhi, India March 15, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

New Delhi: Hours after BJP president Amit Shah met senior ministers of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi on August 31, at least five Union ministers tendered their resignations. These resignations come amid speculation that a third cabinet reshuffle is likely in the coming days.

According to an Indian Express report, minister of state (independent charge) for skill development Rajiv Pratap Rudy; minister of state for water resources Sanjeev Balyan; cabinet minister for micro, small and medium enterprises Kalraj Mishra, minister of state for health Faggan Singh Kulaste; and junior human resource development minister Mahendra Nath Pandey resigned on Thursday night.

The Times of India reported that veteran BJP leader Uma Bharati, who is a cabinet minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, has also offered to quit, citing health reasons.

Shah also met Union commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, as well as the minister of development of the northeastern region, prime minister’s office and personnel, public grievances and pensions Jitendra Singh, the minister of state of the law and justice and electronics and information technology ministries P.P. Chaudhary, and the minister of agriculture and farmers welfare Radha Mohan Singh. But it is difficult to say at present whether they will face the axe or be shifted to other ministries.

BJP insiders told a section of the media that the axed ministers will go back to working for the party.

The rejig is also expected to change the roles of many of the existing ministers, including that of railways minister Suresh Prabhu who had recently offered to resign after the third rail accident in a span of one month but was stopped by the prime minister.

The series of resignations started with Pandey, who the BJP president anointed the party’s Uttar Pradesh unit chief earlier on Thursday. That the resignations came after the ministers met the party president and not the prime minister, and without the government formally announcing the decision, indicated that the cabinet rejig will be more a political and tactical decision than a governance measure.

The Modi government’s third cabinet reshuffle was necessitated because two important ministers – Manohar Parikkar and M. Venkaiah Naidu – were given different roles. Parikkar, who server as Union defence minister, was moved to Goa to take over the chief ministerial post, a position he had held previously, as part of the BJPs clever ploy to form the government in that state despite not having a majority in the assembly elections.

Naidu, who was formerly the Union minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation, urban development and information and technology, is now the vice president.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change was left without a minister after Anil Madhav Dave’s death earlier this year.

Given these developments, many of Modi’s ministers were occupying multiple roles, including Arun Jaitley who currently simultaneously holds the Union finance and defence portfolios. This has attracted a lot of criticism from political observers, who have said that such vast responsibilities on a single minister has affected overall governance.

Ostensibly, the reshuffle appears to be a tactful and timely display of the BJP’s promptness to counter criticisms of its governance over the last three years. But it assumes added importance as the rejig will become a significant preface to the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat, where the BJP will have to beat almost two decades of anti-incumbency, and Himachal Pradesh, where it is in a strong position to beat the ruling Congress party.

Besides, with only one year and eight months to go for the next general elections, the reshuffle can also be viewed as a face-saving measure, especially at a time when the saffron party has been seen struggling to cope with criticisms against measures like demonetisation and strategic failures leading up to an avoidable standoff with China on the Doklam issue.

However, the BJP has shown its political swiftness, if not governmental promptness, in the way it has turned the process of a necessary cabinet reshuffle into a possibly profitable bargain.

Although the ministers who have resigned have had an allegedly poor record in their ministries, they were, by no means, exceptional cases. Noticeably, except Kulaste, all of them are from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar and had, therefore, become dispensable in Shah’s target of winning every seat from the “parliament to the panchayat”. The saffron party’s unprecedented victory in UP and forming the ruling alliance after the collapse of the mahagathbandhan in Bihar had shrunk the roles of UP and Bihar-born leaders in the BJP’s skilful publicity management.

Rudy, from Bihar, had been getting more brickbats than bouquets for his alleged poor handling of the skill development ministry. Similarly, Bharati, too, has been questioned for failing to make any substantial contribution to clean the Ganga, which was her responsibility.

The 76-year-old Mishra had already past the unofficial age limit of 75 years that Modi has reportedly set for its ministers. One may recall that former minority affairs minister Najma Heptuallah had resigned soon after she turned 75. However, Mishra, a leader of repute in UP, remained the only exception in Modi’s cabinet as his continuation was seen as optically important until the state’s elections.

The resignation of Balyan, who is facing accusations of making provocative speeches before the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 and has since then emerged as a Hindu icon in western UP, ostensibly symbolises action by the government after it had to face the wrath of many sections of people for inadequate management of floods in various states. The presence of Balyan helped the BJP draw in votes from Hindus across castes in a polarised political environment.

Similarly, Pandey, from the Brahmin community that form a substantial 10-12% of UP’s population, was shunted to the position of UP state chief. The position, in the presence of Adityanath, is barely relevant after the assembly elections earlier this year, but will help the BJP project a united Thakur-Brahmin leadership in the state. After Adityanath, a Thakur, was elevated to the chief ministerial post, Brahmins had reportedly articulated their concerns. The party has been trying to appease them by taking many measures, one of them being recruiting a majority of Brahmin candidates in the state’s law office.

The cabinet reshuffle has given the BJP an opportunity to bring in not just leaders from poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, but also its new ally the Janata Dal (United), into Modi’s cabinet.

It was reported that in the meeting Shah held with the ministers, BJP general secretary (organisation) Ram Lal, party general secretary in-charge of Gujarat Bhupender Yadav and BJP’s Gujarat unit chief Jitu Vaghani were also present, indicating that Modi and Shah’s home state remained a key focus during the exercise.

Consolidating its political allies before the 2019 general elections appears to be one of the topmost priorities for the BJP while deciding who should resign and who should be included. The two nominees of the Bihar chief minister – Ram Chandra Prasad Singh and Santosh Khushwaha – are slated to join the cabinet, according to a report. Shah had also reportedly met AIADMK leader M. Thambidurai, who is interested in joining the Union government. The Telegu Desam Party is also likely to join the ruling regime.

At present, there are 72 ministers out of a possible total of 81 in Modi’s cabinet, including cabinet ministers and ministers of state. After November 2014 and July 2015, the third cabinet reshuffle may happen this coming weekend. If optical importance is taken into account, the political drama that unfolded in New Delhi in the last week of August has set a great stage for the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

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  • Anjan Basu

    An excellent piece of reporting, with various interesting angles ( for example, the dispensability of the ministers hailing from UP & Bihar now that these two states are safely inside the BJP’s pocket) explored and several likely scenarios etched for our benefit. As for the optics, I always thought optics is what always mattered. most for Modi . His celebrated jumlas are all a part of the same optics.

  • S.N.Iyer

    Primary criteria is loyalty to Modi and Amit Shah and acceptance by RSS. All other factors are political and electoral significance- not suitability of performance. Bith Jaitkey and Rajnath cannot be disturbed for obvious reasons despite their indifferent performance. GST though introduced is yet to establish itself as success. The UPA idea has been implemented without any proper planning and its benefits are at present restricted to free movement of goods across borders. Prices have increased across the board with no particular reason and only causing inflation.