Change the Narrative, Assuage the Disgruntled: What Modi's Cabinet Reshuffle Is Really About

In the face of mounting public disenchantment, the Modi government has resorted to what it does best – perception management.

New Delhi: Coming as it did during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the massive cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday is being hailed as the biggest overhauling of Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi administration, aimed ostensibly at a more focused and clear-headed approach towards governance.

Twelve members of Modi’s ministerial council, including health minister Harshvardhan, were asked to resign to accommodate new faces, who, according to the official spin, were chosen because of their experience, organisational abilities and technical know-how.

However, none can deny that this much-awaited rejig is a response to the brickbats that the Union government has been facing across the board for its poor handling of the health crisis and its failure to stem India’s continuing economic decline.

In the face of mounting public disenchantment, the Modi government resorted to what it does best – perception management. Tags like “youngest-ever cabinet” were cleverly advertised by its spinmeisters. The reshuffle was preceded by the creation of a Ministry of Cooperation, but nothing precise about its tasks and roles was revealed. On cue, however, ministers who have earned a reputation for being better acquainted with the BJP’s public relations templates than their own ministries, took to social media to compliment – in near identical language – the prime minister for his “visionary” move to create a new ministry.

While many experts have called for taking concrete and measured steps to handle the current crises, the government has merely changed faces at the helm to project its supposedly pious intent to usher in a “New India”. The cabinet rejig, in this context, appears more as an admission of guilt than an attempt at course correction. After all, there was hardly any demand, both from inside and outside of government, to change ministers. What was expected from the government was promptness, transparency and accountability.

The cabinet reshuffle fulfils none of those expectations. In fact, many will likely plead that it may have been a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the prime minister’s seemingly failing centralised governance model. It came as no surprise that the Congress, in its immediate response to the reshuffle, latched on to a similar criticism.

“There is a lesson for ministers in these resignations. If things go right, the credit will go to the PM, if things go wrong the minister will be the fall guy. That is the price a minister pays for implicit obedience and unquestioning subservience,” former finance and home minister P. Chidambaram said in a tweet.

In the same vein, Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted, “National Disaster Management Authority is responsible for criminal mismanagement of COVID19. It is headed by the Prime Minister. Will PM take responsibility for his failures? Or will PM only make Dr. Harsh Vardhan the scapegoat for PM’s failures?”

Also read: A Cabinet Reshuffle That Holds Out No Promise of Good Governance

Whether the new cabinet will be able to revive India’s sagging spirits or not will be seen in the days to come. However, what is clear is that the reshuffling exercise predictably remained within the dictates of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election playbook.

A large section of the new ministers were drawn from poll-bound states and from those which recently went through assembly elections. Thus, seven legislators were drawn from Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls early next year, and each of them represent those communities – non-Yadav OBCs, non-Jatav Dalits and Brahmins – which the BJP is currently trying to win over ahead of the polls.

The decision to induct Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel is a calculated move to placate smaller allies, who have been complaining of being sidelined. Patel, one may note, was a Union minister in Modi’s first term but got shunted out when the BJP secured a majority on its own in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

However, with such allies threatening to break their association with the saffron party, the cabinet reshuffle gave the BJP an opportunity to rectify its past mistakes. The party is still recovering from an implosion in the UP state unit, and the move to reach out to some leaders appears to be directed towards appeasing them. Kaushal Kishore, a Pasi Dalit, was one of the leaders who openly complained about Adityanath’s poor COVID-19 management in the state.

Similarly, leaders like Sarbanand Sonowal, who was made to sacrifice his chief ministerial chair in Assam, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who helped the party topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, Narayan Rane, the former Shiv Sena leader who had defected to the Congress before joining the BJP, and other such defectors from West Bengal, were given ministerial positions.

The BJP appears to have chalked out a template for what is otherwise known as a carrot-and-stick approach. It represents leaders from various communities in different official positions, helps them with its organisational and financial muscle, and expects complete subservience in the long run. Appointments ranging from President Ram Nath Kovind and vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu to nominations of various chief ministers and state unit presidents, many will agree, were taken in a similar vein.

At the same time, when there is an implosion despite such a transactional arrangement, the BJP doesn’t hesitate to use a stick. The way smaller allies like the Nishad Party or Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party were sidelined after they resisted moves from the BJP to undercut them, or the recent jibe at the Central leadership from Bengal leaders like Saumitra Khan or Babul Supriyo, points towards such a political idiom.

Watch: Will the New Modi Cabinet Bring Actual Change?

Officially, the cabinet reshuffle at a time when crises on various fronts only seem to be escalating appears to be an attempt to chart a new direction. BJP sources who spoke to The Hindu said that inclusions and exclusions in the cabinet were based on performance evaluations. The Union government, too, has portrayed the exercise as a punishment for non-performing ministers and as one that provides opportunities to energetic technocrats.

However, there is more to the story than meets the eye:

  • Will Anurag Thakur, who was banned by the Election Commission ahead of the Delhi assembly polls for targeting the Muslim community, do justice to his new role as the important minister of information and broadcasting?
  • Will Dharmendra Pradhan, who is seen more as a Modi-Shah loyalist and had a below par record as petroleum minister, bring in inclusive reforms as the new education minister?
  • Will the retention of Nirmala Sitharaman as the finance minister be able to reverse India’s slipping economic growth rate?
  • What does Mansukh Mandaviya, who replaced Harsh Vardhan, an allopathic medical practitioner with notable experience of health administration, bring to the table as the new health minister?

While many such appointments do not immediately inspire confidence, at the heart of the cabinet rejig is one moot question. Is the cabinet reshuffle a move in the direction towards a more decentralised governance? Or will Modi’s centralising impulses be strengthened?

Also read: Union Cabinet Reshuffle: Full List of Ministers and Their Portfolios

For the last seven years, it has come to be widely known that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has been all powerful, so much so that the Union ministers have hardly been able to showcase their work and achievements. No Union minister, with the exceptions of home minister Amit Shah and external affairs ministers S. Jaishankar and his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, has made themselves noteworthy. More often than not, one sees a minister addressing the press on issues that don’t concern his or her ministry – usually firefighting for the BJP and Modi – rather than the ones that do. The BJP and the Union government have made Indians believe that the buck stops at the PMO, and that every decision is made by the prime minister himself. The ministers are perceived to be merely pawns, plain foot soldiers.

This period has seen globally-panned decisions like demonetisation, poor implementation of GST, an acute mishandling of the global pandemic and resultant migrant worker crisis, an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, and an unparalleled spread of majoritarian hate and communal polarisation.

Will that change? Will the new cabinet usher in a more functional government? Comic artist and lyricist Varun Grover tweeted on Wednesday, “Sirf mantri badle hai, mantra wohi hai (The ministers have changed, the chant remains the same).” At the moment, this is the primary sentiment invoked by the cabinet reshuffle.