If the induction of 19 new faces in Narendra Modi’s council of ministers was largely driven by electoral considerations, the demotion of four heavyweights – Smriti Irani, Jayant Sinha, V.K. Singh and Sadanand Gowda – and the sacking of five faceless junior ministers in a ‘night of the short knives’ offers scant clues to those seeking to decipher a message from the reshuffle.
Smriti Irani, the controversial minister for human resource development, has been divested of the prestigious, high profile portfolio and spindled off to the textiles ministry. There were early indications of her being a misfit at education but Modi stuck by her for two years. As recently as February 2016, he publicly defended her – tweeting a link to her melodramatic speech in parliament on the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula (a speech that was also economical with the truth) with the added words ‘satyameva jayate‘, or ‘truth always prevails’. What truths emerged since then to prevail upon the prime minister to ease her out? Was it her penchant to pick quarrels on irrelevant issues – including one with the education minister of Bihar for using the term ‘dear’ as a salutation (as in ‘Dear Smriti Irani’)? Or is the shift from HRD to a less demanding remit a prelude to her deployment in Uttar Pradesh as the BJP’s star campaigner, as some of her supporters would like to believe?
The art of thought control
Irani has been replaced by Prakash Javadekar, the only minister of state to be given full cabinet rank in the reshuffle. Javadekar is an affable politician who rarely gets into arguments or spats and knows the art of winning friends and influencing people. In the brief period that he was information and broadcasting minister, he quickly realised that the effectiveness of Doordarshan as a tool of propaganda for the government is directly proportionate to the amount of freedom it is given. Javadekar’s principal qualification for the HRD job is that he has the ability to pursue the same goals that Irani had been tasked with – to push the saffronisation, commercialisation and centralisation of education – without triggering the kind of resistance she did on campuses and in governing bodies across the country.
Javadekar owes his elevation not just to his skill set but also to the diligence with which he pursued Modi’s agenda at the environment ministry – of not letting the environment stand in the way of ‘vikas’, or development. His successor in the ministry, Anil Madhav Dave, can be expected to continue running things in an industry-friendly manner.
The enigma of Udta Sinha
To accommodate Irani in textiles, Santosh Gangwar, a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh has been moved to finance as minister of state – demoted, really, since he had independent charge earlier – leading to the second major casualty of Tuesday’s reshuffle: Jayant Sinha.
Sinha, who is generally well regarded by financial sector stakeholders for the manner in which he functioned, finds himself inexplicably demoted. He goes from being deputy to Arun Jaitley – the third most important minister in the cabinet – to becoming the understudy of Ashok Gajapati Raju in the civil aviation ministry. One BJP spokesperson said on television, with the faintest trace of a smile on his face, that civil aviation was as important as finance and that Sinha could “fly high”. But this is a ministry where nothing much happens and where, if Modi has his way, nothing much will happen either since he would rather that private airlines took charge of the skies. A major change in civil aviation policy has already been adopted and it is not clear how Sinha will keep himself occupied.
So why has Sinha been grounded? Before the reshuffle, stories were planted in the media about Modi drawing up a detailed performance audit of his ministers and it was put out that non-performers would be penalised. So is Jayant Sinha really a non-performer? Within the party it is an open secret that Modi has been upset with Sinha’s father, Yashwant Sinha, the former minister for finance and external affairs in the Vajpayee government, for his barrage of criticism against the government. One day before the reshuffle, the elder Sinha tore into Modi for the “NSG mess” – India’s failure to get entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Seoul. In Goa earlier this year, he warned that Modi’s government may meet the same fate as Indira Gandhi’s: “The people of India will consign him to the dust, you just have to wait for the next elections,” he said. Sinha Sr. later denied making those remarks and said he had been misquoted, but I was on the same panel as him and can confirm that that is indeed what he had said. Could the son, then, have been punished by Modi for the perceived sins of the father? In the performance chart the prime minister drew up, were negative marks given for the disloyalty of close relatives?
No getting away from Akbar for the general
The other minister of state to have been cut down to size in the latest reshuffle is V.K. Singh, the former army chief who courted controversy for taking the Manmohan Singh government to court in order to stall his retirement from the army. Before Tuesday, Singh had two responsibilities. He was a junior minister in the external affairs ministry, and he was MoS (independent charge) in the ministry for statistics and programme implementation. He has now lost the latter charge.
Singh has been a controversial figure, frequently clashing with the media. To him we owe the charming portmanteau word, ‘presstitute’, to be used interchangeably with ‘journalist’. As in the case of Smriti Irani, Modi publicly defended V.K. Singh when he came under criticism for abusing the press. He was, till 2014, also minister for the development of the northeastern region (DONER), His forays to the north-east as minister for DONER did not exactly set the Brahmaputra on fire. Indeed, his earlier appointment to that portfolio was seen as a continuation of New Delhi’s tendency to ‘securitise’ its handling of the region, as evidenced by the choice of retired police officers, army generals and intelligence chiefs as governors in many of the ‘seven sisters’.
For Singh, though, the loss of statistics and programme implementation comes with an additional blow: a second MoS has now been appointed for the MEA, M.J. Akbar, the veteran journalist turned BJP politician. This is a blessing for the MEA, which requires at least two junior ministers to handle the ever-escalating pace of inbound and outbound diplomacy and all the attendant protocol demands. But this means the general will have to share space with another minister. Barely a month ago, Singh demanded that Akbar Road in the capital be renamed because the great Mughal emperor was apparently not fit to be honoured in India. Having failed in his attempts to delete Akbar’s name from Delhi’s roads, the general will now have to make room for his namesake in South Block.
A message for Jaitley?
Finance minister Arun Jaitley also found himself on the debit side of the reshuffle ledger because he not only lost the information and broadcasting portfolio to Venkaiah Naidu but also a highly competent deputy in North Block. Close on the heels of his inability to ensure the same sort of extended tenure for Raghuram Rajan that all recent governors of the Reserve Bank of India have enjoyed, Jaitley will now have to steer the ship of the economy without the professional assistance of Sinha as well. BJP gadfly Subramanian Swamy’s pre-emptive strike on chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian and on Jaitley himself may have drawn veiled criticism from Modi but Swamy and his supporters in the RSS are bound to see the reshuffle as evidence that the prime minister is not going to go out of his way to defend the finance minister from sniping.
It is a different matter that Modi had sent a dangerous signal to all media houses in India by vesting the I&B portfolio in the hands of a minister who also controlled the income tax and excise departments and the enforcement directorate. As Caravan‘s political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal has noted, the threat of an investigation being opened has been the traditional lever by which governments have tried to keep the media on a straight and narrow path. There has been no suggestion from any quarter, of course, that Jaitley misused the powers of one ministry to further the agenda of another but that would not have prevented media proprietors with less faith in the finance minister’s scruples from trimming their sails as a precaution.
Though Jaitley and the junior I&B minister, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, have turned Doordarshan from a government-owned broadcaster into what political parties like to call an “organ” – complete with blacklists and whitelists – the finance minister also had to contend with pressure from the hidden hand of the RSS. The recommendation of the duly constituted selection panel for the director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, for example, was overturned from behind the scenes earlier this year in order to bring in a candidate Nagpur was batting for. Divesting Jaitley of I&B is thus a message to Rathore, who effectively runs the ministry – that on the ‘cultural’ and political agenda of the Sangh parivar vis a vis Doordarshan, film censorship, and education (eg. FTII), there can be no wobbling.
The new I&B minister, Venkaiah Naidu shares with Jaitley a friendly disposition towards journalists and is never shy of answering questions – unlike many of his colleagues. But I&B has come to him along with the loss of parliamentary affairs – a portfolio that allowed the former BJP president to play a role on the political frontline. That pleasure will no longer be his but Anantha Kumar’s.
Prasad, sweet and bitter
Thanks to the lackadaisical performance of Sadanand Gowda, Ravi Shankar Prasad has gained law and justice in the reshuffle – a portfolio every lawyer-politician aspires to and one which Prasad held but lost after the first few months of the Modi government in 2014. His return to law, however, comes with a price: he has been dropped from communications, aka telecoms, the portfolio he has held from day one. Telecoms has now been handed over to Manoj Sinha, who will have independent charge. However, Prasad retains the information technology portfolio, thus remaining, for all intents and purposes, the Internet czar of India.
In the UPA-II government, when given a choice between HRD and telecoms, Sibal surprised everyone by deciding to stick to the latter. He later got law and justice as well following the resignation of Ashwani Kumar. In the Modi era, it is unlikely that ministers would have been offered the luxury of a choice but if he was, which would Prasad have chosen? Telecoms remains vital but given the Modi government’s unfinished business on judicial appointments, the law portfolio may arguably be the weightier brief.
The big picture
The biggest gainer from the reshuffle is of course the prime minister himself because he has demonstrated that two years into his unprecedented mandate, the waning of his appeal in state elections has not weakened his grip on the party one bit. But the biggest loser from the reshuffle is also Modi himself, because he has squandered the opportunity for a course correction that his government, his party, and India badly need.
To describe the Modi cabinet as a glorified election machine is to state the obvious. With possibly one or two exceptions, none of the ministers inducted on July 5 have come in on the basis of a proven track record or expectation of performance on the governance front. They have been brought in on the arithmetical calculations of caste and region that Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and the RSS have made.
But the route to winning elections lies not in such calculations – or in the strategy of communalisation that is being pursued in Uttar Pradesh – but in actually delivering on the governance front.
Here, there will be widespread disappointment at the prime minister’s failure to drop major laggards and non-performers – the council of ministers is full of them. Even if he acted against Irani, Singh and Gowda on the basis of performance, Modi has left plenty of other non-performing assets in place, even as he penalised a minister who was perceived to be on the ball. Ram Shankar Katheria was one of those junior ministers who was axed. Was he axed for being a bad education minister, or for some of his inflammatory statements? If it is the former, how come other bad ministers survived the cut? And if it is the latter, why has the prime minister ignored the crude, communal and even inflammatory statements ministers like Mahesh Sharma, Niranjan Jyoti, Sanjeev Baliyan and Giriraj Singh have made? These are not individuals whose faces Modi cannot recognise – a claim he made in his recent interview to Times Now. It is the prime minister’s unwillingness to turn the communalist tap off that is colouring the perception of his government as one less interested in development than in the divisive agenda of the Sangh.
Ousting those who have developed some notoriety for their anti-Muslim statements – especially since they are all underperforming ministers – as well as other laggards, would have sent a message to the people of India and to investors around the world that the government is ready to get down to the business of governance. Key ministries like agriculture and health, to name just two, are languishing. Modi has chosen not to do what any sensible politician would have done in the face of reality. This is the single biggest takeaway from his cabinet reshuffle.
Note: In an earlier version of this article, it was incorrectly stated that the ministry V.K. Singh has lost in the latest reshuffle is DONER. It is, in fact, statistics and programme implementation. The new communications minister, Manoj Sinha, was also incorrectly identified as hailing from Bihar. He is, in fact, from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.