Wednesday’s massive reshuffle is a tentative return of the cabinet system. About time. As it is, seven years of prime ministerial overlordship has battered the system out of shape; only now, when comprehensive collapse and failure have come to gnaw at national well-being has a feeble attempt been made to arrest the precipitous fall towards misgovernance.
Is the new Council of Ministers better equipped to roll back the tide of misgovernance and incompetence? The answer cannot be in a simple affirmative. With the possible exception of Ashwini Vaishnaw, it is difficult to spot a promise of additional exceptional talent at the cabinet level. At the Minister of State (MoS) level, a Rajeev Chandrasekhar here or a Meenakshi Lekhi there would not overcome the extraordinary ordinariness of the new entrants.
A cabinet reshuffle is one of the tools available to a prime minister to re-establish his/her authority. But Narendra Modi had no need to assert his pre-eminence; no one was even vaguely hinting at questioning his dominance and control over the government or even the ruling party, the BJP.
A reshuffle is also a stratagem to re-energise the core of the cabinet. But the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) remains untouched. And that defeats a strategic purpose. It cannot be suggested that the prime minister had wanted to make changes in this set-up but somehow political calculations dictated otherwise. After all, neither the external affairs minister nor the finance minister brings such dazzling brilliance to the table that the prime minister cannot do without them; on the contrary, the finance minister’s scorecard is very poor whereas the external affairs minister’s record is barely passable.
Yet both retain their spots in the CCS because both are politically super lightweights; neither can afford to differ, let alone cross swords, with the Prime Minister’s Office. Perhaps the prime minister no longer feels confident that he can afford to add a politically substantial face (say like a Nitin Gadkari) without the risk of losing the balance of control of this core of the core. Perhaps it also suggests that there would be no change in the Modi government’s working temperament.
On the other hand, there is the unexpected and unceremonious departure of Ravi Shankar Prasad from the cabinet. He had come to personify the Modi regime’s cultivated rumbustiousness. His exit from the law ministry can only be construed as an olive branch to the new Chief Justice of India, who has already made it sufficiently clear that the Supreme Court was no longer willing to pull the government’s chestnuts out of fire for it. Prasad’s replacement is a very junior and unremarkable politician from the northeast, that unhappy nursery where all sorts of unappetising impulses find traction. Prasad may have had a loud ministerial voice but Kiren Rijjiu is no patch on him.
Ravi Shankar Prasad has also been made to exit the cabinet as IT minister. Wearing that ministerial hat, he walked into global limelight when he picked up a quarrel with global telecommunication giants. He shouted when a whisper would have done the trick. He had to go. Admittedly, no prime minister should ever feel that he/she has to defer to global partners and investors but neither can a prime minister remain indifferent to the need for civility and grace in dealing with outsiders.
Yet whether he was throwing bouncers as the law minister or hurling beamers as the IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad was only reflecting the government’s agreed upon tactics and tricks. Under a different prime ministerial captain, say an Atal Bihar Vajpayee, Ravi Shankar Prasad would not have been given the ball. After all, the Central defining feature of the Modi prime ministerial arrangement is that the PMO has retained the sole monopoly over initiative, imagination and information. Ravi Shankar Prasad has simply been made to pay for the sins of an overdose of prime ministerial overloading.
Even more spectacular an acknowledgement of failure of prime ministerial leadership is that that good doctor, Harsh Vardhan has been made the scapegoat for the Modi regime’s botched up management of the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the Modi regime’s blue-book of control and command, all COVID-centric decisions and initiatives were hijacked by the PMO. Harsh Vardhan was just the errand boy.
It was, let us recall, the prime minister who gave the coronavirus 21 days to pack up and vanish; it was the prime minister who ceremoniously travelled to Pune and Hyderabad to oversee the vaccine production; it is the prime minister’s photograph that adorns the vaccination certificates; and, it is the prime minister who triumphantly told the world in January how India had conquered the pandemic; yet, it is the poor Harsh Vardhan who now has been made to carry the can for unprecedented misery and pain throughout the land.
Of course, many prime ministers all over the world have been known to have sacrificed this or that ministerial pawn in order to cover up their own leadership failure. Harsh Vardhan’s departure is as close an admission of governmental floundering as prime ministerial hubris would allow.
Wednesday’s reshuffle revives the old axiom of the cabinet system of government that a non-performing minister ought to be shown the door. But it would be foolhardy for anyone to suggest that the new expanded Cabinet would be a collective arrangement. Nor can it be argued that the new entrants would be inclined to differ and dissent from the PMO, thereby providing a much-needed balance and equipoise in decision-making at the national level. The governance process would continue to groan under Narendra Modi’s oversized political persona.
Worse, if the clued-in political pundits are to be believed, the reshuffle is primarily aimed at winning the next round of elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat; this is a return to the old, familiar and failed tricks of the old India. Any notion that if a district-level politician is made a minister of state, he or she acquires the requisite political clout is total humbug. Ask a Jitin Prasada or a Milind Deora or a Bharat Solanki. Shelling out ministerial berths to demanding provincial politicos is very ordinary politics of the old India. We seem to be back to the caste calculus at the heart of our national governing arrangements. So much for all the grandstanding about a ‘New India’.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.