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Penultimate shuffle of Team Modi: What this power game means for the government

Ajay K Mehra | Updated on: 4 September 2017, 16:39 IST
President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses with some new members of cabinet after the reshufe at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday. (PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore)

Twenty months before India's 17th General Elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reshuffled his pack of ministers; not merely the Cabinet, but the entire Council of Ministers (CoM). This ends months of speculation over revamping the CoM, given the vacancies, additional charges and non-performance.

However, since the Janata Dal (United) has not been rewarded for the Bihar coup, perhaps its nominees would come in later. Busy with factional fights the post-Jayalithaa All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was also absent in the current expansion. Obviously, another one is expected soon.

Would this facelift give Team Modi the necessary shine to go to the people with a winning report card in its Mission 2019?

In analysing the most stable post-Congress government since independence, with a leader who equals Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in his control of the party and government, a few significant facts must be borne in mind.

First, the principle of Cabinet government – a system of a collegial executive with a primus inter pares prime minister and collective responsibility – evolved from the Westminster model of democracy in a situation where the Monarch needed to be neutralised. Even in the United Kingdom, these principles were overtaken by a power struggle of party politics by the 1950s.

In India, this happened in half a decade of the Cabinet government under the Constitution of 1950 when Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad passed away, though an odd CD Deshmukh could still rise. He too weakened after 1962, when the party warned him that either VK Krishna Menon goes, or he too would have to.

Indira Gandhi in two of her four stints (1971-77 and 1980-84) was in full command; so was Rajiv Gandhi for five years. For four decades, after 65 years since the Constitution, the PM in the Indian Cabinet System remained a primus inter pares by compulsion of politics.

Since its inception in 1947, ministry formation has been an instrument of sending a message of a CoM representativeness of the country’s diversity. While the Cabinet would represent major communities, the CoM would represent regions too. The breakdown of the Congress system in 1989, ended that.

Obviously, Modi has not been under any compulsion to convey such a message, though a political balancing was needed nevertheless.


The Modi effect

The rise and ascension of Narendra Modi has changed the Cabinet government decisively for now. The current reshuffle of CoM, with significant implications for the cabinet as well, demonstrates that fully.

Unlike Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, Modi did not have to contend with prominent seniors, towering contemporaries and take care of assertive allies once he neutralised the seniors in the Marg Darshak Mandal.

In three years Modi is in full command of the party with the political shrewdness of Amit Shah. The conquest of politically significant Uttar Pradesh and a slight of hand in Bihar have given him an unassailable dominance in the party and the government.

This reshuffle, that makes the CoM 75 strong and with 27 members the Cabinet is the largest since independence, is thus significant before mission 2019.

The notable aspects of the reshuffle/expansion are elevation of four to the Cabinet and the induction of nine to the CoM, including four former bureaucrats, two of whom are not members of Parliament.

I would treat most of the reshuffle of the portfolios as routine, except in a few cases where fingers were raised.

With his exit from the Railways as predictable, Suresh Prabhu still gets the PM’s trust with the important economic sector commerce and industry ministry.

Two of the new Cabinet members, Nirmala Sitharaman (Defence) and Piyush Goyal (Railways) have been given important political and economic sector portfolios. Both were among the junior-most ministers, who have been selected for plum ministries.

This sends out a message to the party on efficiency and performance. The other two have been rewarded for their political skills and sending messages to Muslims and to Odisha.

With Nirmala Sitharaman, the two important cabinet committees, Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA), get a gender balance with two women. This could be used to appeal to women voters. No less significant could be Sitharaman’s role in attracting voters in the South, particularly in Tamil Nadu.


Power balance

The induction of four former mandarins, three of them as Ministers of State with independent charge, a position invented to bring in experienced hands junior (or from outside) in the party hierarchy, also sends out several signals.

– Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri gets independent charge of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

– KJ Alphons, a former IAS officer, widely known as Delhi’s ‘Demolition Man’ gets independent charge of tourism.

– RK Singh, former Union home secretary, gets independent charge of power, energy and renewable resources.

– Satyapal Singh, Mumbai’s former police commissioner is the new minister of state in the human resources development, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation ministries.

This move has brought in two charges. First, that of putting square pegs in round holes, as a diplomat gets to hold the charge of urban development, an IAS known for urban development expertise goes to tourism and so on.

Except for Puri, who perhaps could have been utilised better in external affairs, the charges do not stick. Trained in general administration the IAS is supposed to fit in any position.

Second, enticing the bureaucracy in political roles, thus weakening their professional edge.

Since Indira Gandhi’s widely, and justifiably, criticised call for a committed bureaucracy, the Modi government has been accused of politicsing the babudom with party and ministerial and post-retirement key positions; reflected in many secretarial positions held by the retirees-on-extension. Indeed, it needs deeper analysis.

The treatises on Cabinet government stress prime ministerial privilege in shaping her/his Cabinet and council. Political homogeneity, a key factor, has gradually been shaped into loyalty. Modi, the shrewdest politician on India’s political firmament today, cannot be blamed for securing himself, given the fluidity of India’s politics.

While he has to convey the impression of an efficient government, a homogenous team, even if the unwritten rules of Cabinet government are ignored, is important with an eye to the next general election. With a PMO that reigns supreme, he indeed has a greater leeway than other past PMs.

The author is the Director (Honorary) at the Centre for Public Affairs, Noida


First published: 4 September 2017, 16:39 IST
Ajay K Mehra

The author is the Director (Honorary) at the Centre for Public Affairs, Noida