Suresh Prabhu, India’s new railways minister, is most famous for losing his job in 2002 as power minister in the last Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government because he was not collecting bribes for his Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena party. His party boss, the late Bal Thackeray, insisted that he be replaced by a more pliant minister and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the prime minister, obliged in order to placate a coalition partner – a gesture that became a habit for Manmohan Singh when he succeeded Vajpayee.
Prabhu, a chartered accountant and former co-operative society banker, was brought back into front line politics as railway minister in a big ministerial expansion announced Monday that marks the second phase of Narendra Modi’s BJP government.
The first phase was notable for a lean council of ministers, most of whom were dominated by Modi, who let it be known that he preferred to deal directly with top civil servants.
The latest appointments involve ministers who are expected to take initiatives and responsibilities themselves within parameters laid down by Modi, which should broaden the effectiveness of the government in key areas.
The Congress Party however has launched a detailed attack on the choice of several of the new ministers who have legal charges pending against them, ranging from a criminal case of attempted murder to possessing unaccounted wealth. There were reports that a third of the total number of government ministers face some sort of legal charges.
In addition to Prabhu, a notable appointment is Manohar Parrikar, who till last weekend was the chief minister of Goa and is now the minister of defense. A metallurgical engineer, he takes over from Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, who held the portfolio on a temporary basis after the general election. Parrikar has a major job modernizing the poorly equipped armed forces and opening up defense purchases to Indian companies, which will boost India’s manufacturing industry and create new jobs.
Another key appointment is Jayant Sinha, son of former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha. He has been a successful investment banker in the US and becomes a minister of state in the finance ministry.
Prabhu had other ministerial posts before the power ministry and since then has been involved with moves to interlink India’s rivers and other issues. He has had difficult relations with the Shiv Sena and resigned from the party and joined the BJP just before the new appointments were announced. This worsened a row between his old party and the BJP over the Shiv Sena’s role in Maharashtra’s new BJP-led state government.
The railways ministry has been regarded for many years by most politicians as a populist patronage post that enabled them to benefit their home states. Prabhu’s predecessor, Sadananda Gowda, failed to make a mark of any sort in the six months he had held the job and has been moved to the law ministry, taking over that job from Ravi Shankar Prasad who keeps his other role as telecom minister.
The railway network is badly run and prone to serious crashes that rarely lead to remedial action once the ministry has fended off critics by awarding generous compensation payments to relations of those killed. Modi expects Prabhu, who is also one of his economic advisers and has a ‘Sherpa’ role at the coming G20 international conference, to carry out significant reforms.
Twenty-one new ministers were appointed on Sunday. Arun Jaitley has taken over the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which makes him the government’s top spokesman.
Jaitley’s priority as finance minister is to prepare next February’s budget where he is expected to add shape to the government’s policies. Speaking at a conference over the weekend, he talked about changes to land acquisition laws that are being planned, plus introducing a long overdue goods and services tax, and steering through parliament a measure to raise the foreign direct investment limit in insurance companies from 26 percent to 49 percent.
There has been some criticism in recent months that too few of Modi’s ministers had adequate experience and clout, and that his central control was restricting government action. The test is now whether Modi will manage both to control and invigorate his new ministerial team, while at the same time following his p[referred path of relying on bureaucrats for delivery.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right-hand corner of the AS facepage.