India’s Modi Reshuffles Cabinet: Gains, Surprises

Narendra Modi’s long-awaited cabinet reshuffle took place late on July 5 with some gains in terms of government efficiency and some surprises. Overall, Modi’s supremacy has been underscored, working in tandem with Amit Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hardline Hindu nationalist president.

Overall, 19 MPs joined the government in what is Modi’s second ministerial expansion and reshuffle since the general election. While the changes in ministerial responsibilities appear to have been largely based on merit, the choice of the new ministers has stemmed largely from electoral politics. A number of dalit and other backward caste leaders have been given ministerial positions in order to demonstrate to voters that the BJP government does not just care for upper castes and the well-off.

This is significant since key elections take place next year in various states, notably Uttar Pradesh (UP) and also including Punjab and Gujarat. Both the BJP and Congress are now gearing up for the UP polls which as a key test of Modi and the government’s popularity.

The most surprising and, it seems, self-defeating change is a demotion for Jayant Sinha, minister of state (number two) at the finance ministry to a similar spot at the aviation ministry. His only failing appears to be having as his father a former BJP finance and foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, who has been an outspoken Modi critic, most recently over failures on foreign policy.

An equally unexpected but constructive demotion hit Smriti Irani, the accident-prone and excessively combative minister for human resources (HRD and including education), who has been shunted off to the textiles ministry.

Other moves shift some under-performing ministers and reduce the responsibilities of others, mostly resulting from a rare in-depth examination of ministers’ effectiveness ordered by Modi.

Arun Jaitley, the overworked minister of finance and corporate affairs, has lost his responsibility for the information and broadcasting ministry, which has gone to Venkaiah Naidu, a veteran BJP politician and till now the minister for parliamentary affairs. Jaitley has been given two ministers of state to replace Jayant Sinha but, without Sinha’s expertise, there will be more onus on him to spend more of his time managing economic policy and assessing proposals from the ministry’s bureaucrats.

It is difficult to see what Sinha can achieve as number two at the aviation ministry, which presides over the entrenched airline (notably perpetually loss-making inefficient Air India) and airports establishment, and is far from a happening part of government. A Harvard-educated former New York fund manager and McKinsey consultant, he brought unusual professional depth to the finance ministry, where he spearheaded some initiatives and was highly regarded by foreign investors.

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That is not a resume that fits easily with Modi and the BJP’s Sangh Parivar. Unlike Raghuram Rajan, who is about to leave the Reserve Bank of India governorship after just one three-year term, he has not however paraded his professional credentials and has stayed strictly within his brief. (Rajan upset Modi and the Sangh Parivar with outspoken remarks that clashed with the government line. He recently announced his return to Chicago University when it became clear the government would not confirm him for a second term).

Unless there is some special task that Sinha is to perform at aviation, the only reason for his move therefore seems to be his father’s repeated criticisms of the Modi regime.

Irani’s move is long overdue because she has been a constant embarrassment to the government, most recently over her handling of the unnecessarily explosive student unrest at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru and other universities. She has also clashed with Modi’s policy makers on various issues.

A former famous television actress and model, she has had Modi as her patron. He protected her for two years after he unexpectedly gave the high profile HRD ministry after the 2014 general election. She immediately hit the headlines, mishandling whether or not she had got a university degree (she hadn’t).

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Her successor is Prakash Javadekar, the minister of state in charge of environment, forests and climate change since 2014. He has been promoted to the cabinet having, with relatively little controversy, boosted infrastructure development by reducing the effectiveness of environmental protection laws and regulations in line with Modi’s wishes.

The government is now working on a new education policy that will include “saffronizing” curriculums along Hindu nationalist lines. With Irani in charge, this would have made controversial headlines at every step. Javadekar will handle it more effectively with less bombast.

Among other ministers whose responsibilities have been reduced or changed, Ravi Shankar Prasad has lost the telecommunications ministry. He was not regarded as a success in some areas and took an unnecessarily combative approach with foreign investors. He has however regained the law and justice ministry where he was the minister earlier, which will please him since he is a lawyer. He also retains responsibility for electronics and information technology.

At the communications ministry, Prasad is succeeded by Manoj Sinha (no relation to Jayant and Yashwant), previously number two at the railways ministry. Sinha will be responsible for a key auction of telecoms spectrum and for pushing the behind-schedule Bharat Net project spreading internet to rural areas, which is central to Modi’s Digital India program.

Javadekar is succeeded at environment by Anil Dave, a new minister who is involved in conservation work on the famous Narmada river and also has experience on water resources and climate change.

Other appointments include M.J.Akbar, a journalist, editor, author and a former Congress MP (1989-91). He has been a BJP spokesman and is now a minister of state in the external affairs ministry.

Amit Shah worked closely with Modi on the changes. He interviewed many of those involved earlier this week, a job normally performed by a prime minister, which underlines his central role.

The Congress Party is now considering whether Priyanka Gandhi, the charismatic daughter of party leader Sonia and sister of Rahul, the less-than-effective deputy leader, should play a leading role in the UP campaign. That could mark her entry into mainline politics. Rahul is currently holiday at an unknown foreign destination, and a decision might be made when he returns. Curiously, the party is also reported to be considering fielding Sheila Dikshit, 78-year old former chief minister of Delhi, as its chief ministerial candidate for UP.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears to the right of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.