Prime Minister Narendra Modi reshuffled the cabinet for the third time and most probably for the last time, before 2019 general elections. As always, Modi surprised everyone by taking bold decisions. Thirteen ministers took the oath on Sunday in the presence of the President Ram Nath Kovind. Modi expanded his Council of ministers by inducting nine new ministers. Four ministers were promoted to cabinet level. Also, six ministers had resigned or according to some reports, they were sacked by Modi for their poor performances. So who were the gainers? Who were the losers? Is NDA finished? Let us find out.
Who were the gainers?
Four ministers were given promotions and nine new ministers were introduced. But, the most influential and promising step taken by Modi was appointing Nirmala Sitharaman as the Defence minister of the country. She became the first woman, who will handle the defence matters of the country. Before this, former PM Indira Gandhi had handled the defence. Defying media speculation that Arun Jailtley may continue as Defence Minister, Modi surprised his own party colleagues by appointing JNU-educated Nirmala Sitharaman for the job. Sitharaman makes it to the elite club of top 4 in the government and automatically becomes the member of the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Another major change was Piyush Goyal being appointed as Union Railway Minister after replacing Suresh Prabhu. Piyush Goyal became the 39th Railway Minister of India, ninth in last eight years. It is an appointment that reinforces the focus on infrastructure development, of which the railways accounts for a big chunk. Railways will be the third portfolio for Goyal, who has been minister of state with independent charge for power, coal, new and renewable energy and mines. Under the new appointments, he will be the minister of railways and coal. However, there remain several mammoth tasks ahead of Goyal.
Also, amongst the promoted members, is Dharmendra Pradhan, who retains oil and gas portfolio and gets additional charge of skill development ministry. Also, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has been promoted. He retains the minority affairs portfolio.
9 new faces introduced:
Amongst the new ministers introduced in the cabinet, Hardeen Puri was introduced as Housing and Urban Development minister. The former IAS officer, Alphons K is now MoS for tourism with independent charge. Ex-home secy, RK Singh gets independent charge of power and new & renewable energy. BJP MP, Virendra Kumar is MoS for women and child development and minority affairs. Five-time MP from Uttara Kannada, Anant K Hegde is MoS for skill development and entrepreneurship. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, MP from Jodhpur, is MoS for agriculture and farmers’ welfare. Ex-Mumbai top cop, Satya Pal Singh is the MoS for HRD, water resources, and Ganga rejuvenation. BJP veteran Ashwini Kumar Choubey is MoS for health and family welfare. Shiv Pratap Shukla, Rajya Sabha member from UP, becomes the minister of state for finance.
Also, four ministers were reshuffled. Suresh Prabhu retained cabinet, but he will take over as the new commerce and industry minister. Uma Bharti loses the water resources and Ganga rejuvenation but gets drinking water and sanitation department. Rajyavardhan Rathore is the MoS of youth affairs and sports but also retains I&B ministry. Vijay Goel is the MoS for parliamentary affairs, statistics, and programme implementation, after being the minister of youth affairs and sports portfolios.
Did BJP lose support of its allies?
Several veteran leaders were left out of the cabinet ministry and there are speculations that the BJP allies are not very much pleased with the reshuffling. As PM Modi reshuffled his cabinet on Sunday, there was an outbreak of heartburn not just among ministers who were asked to resign, but for allies who made no gains today. Sources close to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said he’s “disappointed” that despite joining the BJP’s national coalition about two weeks ago, “there was no call from PM Modi” discussing the reworking of ministries.
The Shiv Sena, another ally of the BJP, has 18 MPs. Uddhav Thackeray, who is Sena chief, curtly told reporters that “we are not hungry for power” when asked why the party’s quota of just one minister has not been increased. The Sena boycotted Sunday’s oath-taking ceremony of nine new ministers. Also, Shiv Sena claimed that this was only BJP’s reshuffle and not of NDA.
Also, Nitish Gadkari emerged as a major loser of the reshuffle. The defence portfolio was first offered to Nitish Gadkari, who refused to take it up and insisted on retaining his transport charge along with defence. Gadkari’s demand was backed by RSS. Modi resisted Gadkari’s demand and has now given him an additional charge of water resources.
Has cabinet reshuffling anything to do with BJP’s 2019 elections campaign?
If today’s Union Cabinet reshuffle has anything to do with the BJP’s Mission 2019, it is not yet evident. The exercise sends all kinds of messages other than what was expected; that it will indicate, substantially, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah strategy for the next general elections. The clear indication as on date is that the reshuffle is only the first in a series of future rejigs before the party actually sits down to thrash its electoral strategy. The reshuffle was necessary. From the administrative point of view, vacancies needed to be filled and senior ministers relieved of additional portfolios and the party needed to shed some deadwood.
In this kind of a scenario, the Sunday reshuffle is but an elementary step towards Mission 2019, with the bigger and more important steps still taking shape. After all, it has been India’s electoral experience that the configuration of a Union council of ministers never really mattered in the general elections. Brands alone mattered. Brands like Modi, Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi. Their parties did not win elections because of their ministers. They won or lost on the basis of their own image.
There is only one clear, unequivocal message from Sunday’s reshuffle of the Union Cabinet. India has never seen a Prime Minister like Narendra Modi. One reason why all predictions about his likely actions fail is that there is no precedent for many of the things that Modi does and, therefore, no reliable way of assessing what he will do next.