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Why Modi’s Cabinet reshuffle only exposed BJP’s massive talent crunch

Catch Team | Updated on: 3 September 2017, 16:47 IST

The much awaited reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Council of Ministers finally took place on Sunday.

It was being anticipated that the reshuffle would serve two objectives: first, provide and impetus to governance and policy implementation, where the government had been struggling. Second, it was expected that the reshuffle would reflect Modi’s plan for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The reshuffle, however, achieves neither.

The entire exercise brought to light one reality: that there is a significant talent crunch in the ruling BJP.

Talent crunch

This talent crunch has enabled performing ministers like Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal to rise rapidly from ministers of state to Cabinet ministers with important portfolios. Sitharaman will be the new Defence Minister of India, while Goyal has been given charge of the Railways Ministry.

Two other ministers given Cabinet rank are petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who also got additional charge of skill development, and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Naqvi who is now only the second person from a minority community,  in the Modi Cabinet.

But more than the elevation of these four leaders, what truly exposed the talent crunch in the BJP is the appointment of four former civil servants as ministers. Former diplomat Hardeep Puri has been made minister of state (independent charge) for urban development, former DDA chief Alphons Kannathanam will be MoS (independent charge) for tourism in addition to being MoS in the ministry of Information Technology, former home secretary RK Singh will be MoS (independent charge) for power as well as new and renewable energy and former Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh will be MoS in the ministries of HRD and water resources.

It is interesting that for all Modi’s talk of change, four out of the nine new ministers appointed in the present reshuffle, were civil servants who worked under Congress-led governments for much of their careers.

Also, it appears that ministers haven’t been penalised for underperformance. For instance, hundreds have died in railway accidents under Suresh Prabhu’s watch. But he wasn’t removed from the Cabinet or even demoted. Instead he has been shifted to an equally important ministry: Commerce, again reflecting the talent crunch Modi faces especially in key economic policy related ministries. This was evident even in the appointment of Rajiv Kumar to the NITI Aayog earlier.

The Congress in contrast had several good policy minds like P Chidambaram, Anand Sharma and Jairam Ramesh, not to mention Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Sam Pitroda, and Nandan Nilekani.

Also Modi has chosen to retain and not even move a minister like JP Nadda who had been facing criticism and even corruption allegations. The other new Ministers of State are:

Ananth Kumar Hegde
MoS Skill Development and Entrepreneurship

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat
MoS Agriculture, Family Welfare
State: Rajasthan

Ashwini Kumar Chaubey
MoS Health and Family Welfare
State: Bihar

Shiv Pratap Shukla
MoS Finance
State: Uttar Pradesh

Virendra Kumar
MoS Minority Affairs, Women and Child Development
State: Madhya Pradesh

Barring the elevation of Sitharaman and the appointment of Alphons and Hegde, the reshuffle has largely been an affair dominated by the Hindi speaking states. This clearly goes against the belief that the BJP would try to be more inclusive in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

Leave aside the Lok Sabha elections, even states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which go to polls this year, haven’t been given any added representation.

The inclusion of Karnataka leader Hegde is also attracted criticism as he is said to have several criminal cases against him and there’s a video of him doing the rounds in which he assaulted a doctor in a hospital. The inclusion of Hegde, a Brahmin also goes against the speculation that BJP will try to accommodate the Lingayat community ahead of the Karnataka Assembly polls.

Another significant aspect of the reshuffle is its Upper Caste dominant nature. Baring Virendra Kumar who is a Dalit, most of the other new appointees happen to be Upper Castes.

The party has also been unimaginative in certain appointments. For instance, it is believed Satyapal Singh was appointed partly because another Jat, Sanjiv Baliyan resigned and SP Shukla was included because another Brahmin Kalraj Mishra had quit.

Rise and rise of Nirmala Sitharaman

The most talked about aspect of the reshuffle will, of course, be the elevation of Sitharaman as Defence Minister. Sitharaman will be the first woman since Indira Gandhi to hold the Defence portfolio. This would mean that she would naturally become part of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Some say that this would diminish the status of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj considerably.

Interestingly it was Swaraj who brought Sitharaman into the BJP a little over a decade ago. But during the power struggle within the BJP in 2012-13, she is said to have switched loyalties to the Modi camp. In 2014, Sitharaman and Swaraj had a spat on Twitter over the formation of Telangana. Sitharaman had retweeted a tweet accusing Swaraj of betraying Seemandhra. Swaraj retaliated later by retweeting a tweet which said “with spokespersons like Sitharaman, who needs enemies?”

Some say that her appointment would also mean that it is likely that the PMO will end up wielding considerable influence in the defence ministry.

Congress and allies respond

In an interesting development, the Congress expressed its best wishes to the newly inducted ministers. But it included a warning: “we are watching you”.

Criticising the government, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said that whatever changes the government makes, it won’t rebuild its image.

Meanwhile, BJP’s allies Janata Dal (United) and Shiv Sena appear to be sulking. The spokespersons of both allies – KC Tyagi and Sanjay Raut – refused to comment on it calling it “BJP’s internal reshuffle, not NDA’s”. It is said that both parties had hoped to gain a few crumbs through the reshuffle.

First published: 3 September 2017, 16:47 IST