Decoding the Political Arithmetic of Modi’s Cabinet Expansion

Most political observers view the reshuffle as a palliative exercise aimed at specific caste and community groups before upcoming elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Nineteen new ministers have been inducted into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. In multiple interviews published on the morning of the swearing-in, the prime minister has claimed that the expansion of the cabinet is meant to fast-track governance. However, most political observers view the reshuffle as a palliative exercise aimed at specific caste and community groups in the context of crucial assembly elections scheduled for next year.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which aims to wrest the largest state in terms of electoral constituencies, Uttar Pradesh, and hold on to Gujarat for the fifth consecutive time, has chosen to bring five Dalits (Ramdas Athavale, Krishna Raj, Ramesh Chandrappa, Ajay Tamata, Arjun Meghwal), two adivasis (Jaswantsinh Bhabhor, Fagan Kulaste), and a sizeable section of OBC leaders in the union council of ministers. The move is significant as for a while now the party has been trying to forge an improbable Dalit-OBC-Adivasi alliance under its leadership in various constituencies of these two states.

These communities are significant also in the sense that a large section of these unprivileged groups have been reeling under the twin pressures of rising food prices and an employment crisis. The last two years of the Modi government has seen a violent agitation by Patidars (Patels) in Gujarat and unrest among Dalits and adivasis in many regions across north India.

UP’s scenario

BJP president Amit Shah, who has been making frequent trips to UP to micro-manage the campaign, has clearly indicated by his choice of leaders that the party is going for caste and community groups which come across as ‘floating’ between different parties in previous elections. A few months ago, he appointed the low profile leader Keshav Prasad Maurya as the state president. Mauryas are the second biggest OBC community in UP after the Yadavs. Some estimates suggest that they constitute a little more than 10% of the state’s population. In its bid to form an alternative OBC alliance, Modi has also included the OBC leader Anupriya Singh Patel, a Kurmi leader from its ally, Apna Dal. Apna Dal commands a significant support of the Kurmis in eastern UP. Alienating the Yadavs from OBC politics has been prime on the BJP’s agenda.

Similarly, the party is also targeting the non-Jatav Dalit groups, keeping in mind that Jatavs form the core base of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party. The Dalits, who form around 19% of the state’s electorate, have largely voted for the BSP but the BJP aims to capitalise upon the growing perception among some Dalit groups that Jatavs rule the roost in the BSP.

In the past, the BJP has seen some degree of success among Dalit groups like the Valmikis, Pasis, Dhobi, Dom etc. The BJP aims to consolidate this alliance in its favour as most other parties rely on their traditional support. Congress, on the other hand, looks like it will have a Brahmin face leading the UP campaign. The faultlines in UP politics have always been on caste and community divisions, with each party trying to mark its own territory. The BJP’s strategy is to clearly break the existing caste and community equations, and communal polarisation has been one of its primary tactics to do so, as the concocted Kairana ‘Hindu exodus’ story recently exposed.

Gujarat is poll-bound too

The inclusion of OBC leaders – Purushottam Rupala (Khushwaha) and Mansukh Mandaviya (Patidar) – in the union cabinet clearly indicates the BJP’s growing anxieties in Gujarat. The violent Patidar agitation last year in the state had rocked the Anandiben Patel government’s boat. The repressive way in which the state government handled the agitation led to widespread disillusionment, with a sizeable section of OBCs turning against her. The inclusion of two OBC leaders, therefore, is seen as the party trying to reach out to these communities.

Alongside, the BJP has also been careful enough to include a known tribal face from the state – Jaswant Singh Bhabhor. According to sources in the party, Modi and Shah have specifically instructed the Gujarat unit of the party to step up their work in the tribal areas of south and west Gujarat.

Jat representation

A majority of Jats in Rajasthan, Haryana, and Western UP had voted for the BJP in the 2014 general elections. But in the past two years, the Jats have been agitating against the central government over a variety of issues – the two most important being their demand for reservation and increased central support for the sugarcane crop. The choice of Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat, as the Haryana CM has also been one of their perpetual complaints against the Modi government. The inclusion of a Jat in the Union Cabinet – C.R. Chaudhary – also sends a positive message to the Jats.

Call it a reshuffle or expansion, the Tuesday morning exercise is only a round-about way to mollify especially those who had voted for the BJP in 2014 but have been showing signs of dissent of late. None of the ministers sworn in today has any previous positive track record of governance. So the idea that the expansion is to energise the government is a nothing but a misplaced explanation. Electoral tactics based upon caste and community fault lines seem to be the main agenda behind the ‘expansion.’