This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.
I don’t know what prompted one newspaper’s choice of lead photograph on July 8 (used above for illustrative purposes) but their unaesthetic montage of Narendra Modi’s new cabinet ministers tells us all we need to know about the nature of the government we have in India today and why the latest reshuffle and expansion of the Union cabinet is unlikely to change anything substantive about it.
Each minister is seen not by himself, as might normally be the case in a collage involving 15 faces, but as a prop for the Dear Leader, making it evident that the two are inseparable and that the member of cabinet is merely an appendage or extension of the prime minister.
If this is a cunning editorial point the newspaper’s editors are making, I doff my hat to them. But if, as I suspect, poor design sense is at play, we can still be grateful to them for providing us visual confirmation of how central Modi is to the Modi sarkar. So yes, Modi has expanded his council of ministers to 77, just four short of the permissible ‘maximum government’ limit, but each of his chosen men and women are there only to magnify his own role.
Wednesday’s cabinet reshuffle comes at a time when the government’s credibility has sunk to an all time low. As he examined his list of names, Modi knew that virtually every minister – from home, finance and defence to health, education and information technology – was either underperforming or proving disastrous in his or her area. The effects of this mishandling are all around – in Ladakh, on India’s farms and cities, even in cyberspace. Nowhere is this more glaring than in health, where the handling of the pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic.
That Harsh Vardhan was singularly unsuited for the job was clear when his ministry stuck to its ‘all is well’ song even after the WHO had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020. His unscientific comments and associations (including with businessman-quack Baba Ramdev) as the pandemic raged was further proof of the need for a change. Brazil has changed health ministers twice in the past year, the Czech Republic four times while other countries have also seen their health ministers eased out for poor performance. The reason Modi persisted with Harsh Vardhan for so long is because everyone knows it was the prime minister who was personally driving all of the pandemic-related policies that were to prove so costly for India – especially the failure to prepare for the disastrous second wave and for adequate doses of vaccine.
By sacking Harsh Vardhan as part of a wider reshuffle in which other high profile ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad (IT), Prakash Javadekar (information and broadcasting) and Ramesh Pokhriyal (education) were also ousted, Modi hopes to pin the blame for 400,000 deaths on the talentless minister while also downplaying the singular nature of the tragedy that he himself has presided over.
Allocations that mean little
In my assessment, Javadekar and Prasad are collateral damage, sacked to provide cover for the PM’s own failings on the Covid front. The speculation in political circles is that they paid the price for the manner in which they have alienated the media and social media companies like Twitter with their bullying. I doubt this was the case.
Let us be very clear: the attempt to control India’s media, and especially its feisty digital players is entirely Modi’s agenda. The attempt to ensure Twitter un-levels the social media playing field by giving a free run to official fake news while choking off legitimate criticism is also Modi’s agenda. Neither of these goals, as expressed in the government’s obnoxious IT Rules, 2021, is going to be abandoned. Indeed, the choice of Anurag Thakur – a man who exhorted BJP supporters to ‘shoot the traitors’ during a public rally in Delhi in 2020 – is a sign that the attack on independent media will likely intensify.
As for the rest of the cabinet, the allocation of portfolios holds little significance since we are dealing with a highly centralised Modi/PMO driven governance system in which the personal whims, fancies and ideological prejudices of the prime minister – rather than statecraft, data, research and professional advice – drive policy.
So we have the hokiness of a new ministry called “Cooperation”, which is supposed to promote cooperatives, being hailed as Modi’s “visionary” creation. And handed over not to the minister of agriculture or any other department which actually deals with cooperatives but to home minister Amit Shah. Unless this is linked to the BJP’s political plans for Maharashtra, where cooperatives are influential.
Many of the other portfolio combinations also make no sense – urban development has been clubbed with oil (Hardeep Puri), shipping with AYUSH (Sarbananda Sonowal), railways with telecom (Ashwini Vaishnaw), environment with labour (Bhupender Yadav), I&B and sports (Anurag Thakur).
Surely it cannot be the case that the workload in these ministries is so light that they do no need a standalone minister. The doubling and even tripling of portfolios means either that there is a serious shortage of ministerial talent, or that Modi sees his ministers merely as conduits for the implementation of policies that the PMO will drive. Whatever the reason, those expecting good things to emerge from the reshuffle had better look for positivity elsewhere.