Bhavdeep Kang and Girish Nikam
Political pundits dubbed it as Narendra Damordas Modi’s cabinet. Young, as most ministers, except three, were born after Independence; lean, given the truncated number—45 against UPA-II’s 77; and mean, because of multiple portfolios given to most of them. Before his swearing in on May 26, Modi told them that they should be prepared to offer “ahuti (sacrifice)” in the cause of “rashtra nirmaan (nation building)”. The more perspicacious read this elevated sentiment as a subtle warning that they better deliver, or else.
What went unnoticed was that the cabinet’s composition was influenced by BJP’s old guard, LK Advani, party’s new star, Arun Jaitley, and its ideological wing, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Each forced Modi to select specific candidates or give them the choicest portfolios. RSS’ dream boy, Rajnath Singh, was the Number 2 (home), Advani loyalist, Sushma Swaraj was Number 3 (external affairs), and Arun Jaitley emerged as a powerful minister with three portfolios, finance, defense and corporate affairs.
For Advani, it was a mixed bag. His ambition to become the prime minister remained a dream, but almost all the top occupiers were his “boys and girls”. It was Advani, who had groomed them for a decade by giving them important posts within the party and in the earlier BJP-led NDA regimes. These included Jaitley, Singh, Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, among others. He was their godfather and patron saint for years. No wonder, his eyes were moist as he watched the swearing-in ceremony.
Sushma Swaraj, who was allegedly a key driver within the “Club of 160”—a pre-election group of BJP leaders opposed to Modi and which desired that the party’s tally would fall short of 160, and thereby ensure that Modi would not become prime minister—was initially offered the post of speaker, which she declined. Swaraj insisted on being a member of the coveted Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
Modi decided to bury past differences and gave her external affairs. The initial idea to give her defense was shot down. But there is no denying that the ministers unmistakably carried Jaitley’s stamp. It comprised several of his loyalists—Smriti Zubin Irani (human resource development), Piyush Goyal (power, coal, and new and renewable energy with independent charge), Nirmala Sitharaman (commerce and industry with independent charge, and finance and corporate affairs as junior minister), Dharmendra Pradhan (petroleum and natural gas with independent charge), and Ananth Kumar (chemicals and fertilizers).
It was a great bounce back for Jaitley—from zero on May 16 to hero 10 days later. On May 16, when election results were announced, it included his crushing defeat in Amritsar at the hands of that doughty old soldier, Captain Amarinder Singh. He went into depression and prepared a statement that he would not join the cabinet. As an opposition politician, he had taunted UPA-II for accommodating electoral losers as ministers. The BJP and RSS leaders were immediately dispatched to his residence to dissuade him from issuing it.
Willy-nilly, the prime minister helped Jaitley re-emerge as a powerful politician. Modi was clear about his choice of the finance minister. He wanted Jaitley. Although the long-standing bond between the two—going back to Modi’s tenure as party’s general secretary in 1998—suffered a setback during Nitin Gadkari’s term as BJP president, Modi continued to regard Jaitley’s abilities. He wanted a star performer to help kickstart economic growth.
Earlier, there were rumors that Arun Shourie was a contender for the finance minister’s post, but it was perhaps put out by anti-Jaitley forces within the BJP. The latter believed Shourie’s proximity to RSS-favorite, chartered accountant S Gurumurthy, would make the former more acceptable to Modi than corporate-friendly Jaitley.
RSS’ hand in cabinet formation can be seen largely from one appointment—Rajnath Singh. In his case, an idea was floated that home should be truncated, and internal security be brought under the PMO. This would have eroded his importance or compelled him to opt for defense, which was offered to him. (He was the only one who was given a choice.) But the RSS insisted on an intact home ministry, and pointed to a host of problems that could arise if internal security was directly under PMO.
One should not forget that Jaitley and RSS’ Number 3, Suresh Soni, are close to each other. One should remember that Modi’s chaiwallah-to-PM narrative misses the crucial element that he owes his education, career and life direction to the Sangh. Despite the fact that Modi has almost wiped out RSS in Gujarat, the ideological wing regards him as one of its own. RSS pracharaks at its Jhandewalan headquarters in Delhi wept when he was elected prime minister. Therefore, Soni may play an important role in governance in the near future.
However, RSS’ influence on the party is another story. Thanks to government formation, BJP was virtually emptied out, necessitating new faces. The names of Amit Shah and Jagat Prakash Nadda, both Modi loyalists, as potential party chief are doing the rounds, but Rajnath is likely to hold charge for the moment. To extend its clout within the party, the RSS may depute five or six of its prized pracharaks there.
Efficiency or haste
Despite the compulsions, Modi has still managed to get the kind of cabinet he would have wished for. In many cases, he put efficiency and administrative experience of ministers ahead of their clean image. Nitin Jairam Gadkari was embroiled in benami shareholders’ controversy, Ananth Kumar is still fighting the HUDCO corruption case, and Venkaiah Naidu was accused of corruption by party politicians.
But Gadkari getting a critical infrastructure portfolio ((roads, highways and shipping) was a tribute to his competence and a reward for his efforts to get Modi declared as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013. Others selected for their experience included Naidu, Uma Bharti, Harsh Vardhan and Menaka Gandhi. Bharti is expected to spearhead the revival of river Ganga, a promise Modi made to Varanasi residents.
Modi succeeded in his slightly-innovative idea to club ministries and create super-ministers. However, his decision to give multiple responsibilities to some ministers was welcomed with caution. “It is one thing to talk about downsizing the government, but efficiency should not suffer because of it,” warns AN Tiwari, former secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, and also a former chief information commissioner.
For example, the biggest challenge before this government would be the economic issues. Most eyes are glued on Modi to tame inflation, spur growth, and woo investments. Therefore, one would have expected him to select the best candidate to handle only finance. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Jaitley to handle defense, another mega ministry, and corporate affairs, along with finance.
Similarly, environment is key component and detractor to attract investments. Again, a senior minister should have handled this portfolio single-handedly, instead of being burdened with others. However, Prakash Javadekar has been given I&B and parliamentary affairs, apart from environment. The same is the case with Ravi Shankar Prasad, who got communications and information technology, and law and justice.
In many cases, the multiple portfolios made no sense. How are mines, steel and labor, allotted to Narendra Singh Tomar, related, except that steel firms and mining companies hire workers? What are the synergies between textiles, water resources, and parliamentary affairs, given to Santosh Kumar Gangwal? Or for that matter between Sarbanand Sonowal’s skills development, entrepreneurship, and youth and sports affairs? To be fair to Modi, some of the portfolio distribution was sound. He clubbed culture and tourism, which had almost-perfect synergies, and gave them to Shripad Yesso Naik.
Planning was joined with statistics and program implementation, which had several commonalities, and allotted to Inderjit Singh Rao. Apart from external affairs, Swaraj got overseas Indian affairs, as the two go hand-in-hand. Nadu got urban development, housing and urban poverty alleviation, and parliamentary affairs; at least the first two required coordination and common vision.
Modi’s masterstroke was in the selection of those who got independent charges of crucial ministries. Experts feel that as junior ministers, they would constantly look towards the PM or PMO for subtle and nuanced directions. This would enable Modi to directly and indirectly interfere in the decision-making process of these ministries. Most of such “independent” portfolios include areas, which are important in Modi’s scheme of things.
The prime minister is interested in foreign and domestic investments; his claim to fame was the manner in which he cajoled investors to Gujarat. As the nation’s head, he entrusted Sitharaman with independent charge of commerce and industry. To monitor capital expenditure by public sector, he got Rao to independently take care of planning and program implementation. He has constantly talked about skill development and entrepreneurship; so, Sonowal will report directly to the PM or PMO on these critical issues.
Over the past few years, the oil and gas sector became a controversial one, especially in the light of alleged favors given by UPA-II to Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Industries. It is bound to be a contentious issue in the near future. So, petroleum and natural gas has gone with an independent charge to Pradhan. At Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, Ambani came with his entire family, along with several other industrialists.
Unlike in the past several regimes, the lead party’s (BJP) allies had little say in cabinet formation. Karnataka’s former CM BS Yeddyurappa, who arrived in Delhi to requ-est a berth for himself or his protégé, Shobha Karandlaje, was sent off with a flea in his ear. So were Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, when they asked for, in addition to a cabinet berth, a minister of state portfolio for Naresh Gujral.
Still, Modi gave coalition partners some respect by giving Shiv Sena’s Anant Geete heavy industries and public enterprises, Telugu Desam’s Ashok Gajapati Raju, civil aviation, and Ram Vilas Paswan, consumer affairs, and food and public distribution, which were not insignificant portfolios. However, he ensured that such ministers could not be part of top decision-making bodies like the CCS.
The biggest failure on part of Modi was his inability to inculcate technocrats and economists in his A-Team. But experts contend that this may happen over the next few months. “He will watch the performance of each minister, and whoever does not reach up to expectations will be thrown out. This will provide the PM with opportunities to get new faces from the industry and academia,” says one of them.
How will this government perform in comparison to the previous ones? Some experts say that judging from the influence-peddlers, power-brokers and middlemen who thronged Modi’s swearing in, the old power structure comprising politicians, corporates, bureaucrats, lawyers and media will continue to hold sway. If so, the PM may have a hard time delivering on the expectations he had raised during his high-voltage campaign.
One of the challenges, which Modi will face, would be on the Rajya Sabha front. His party or coalition does not have a majority in the Upper House, unlike the almost two-thirds majority in Lok Sabha. This could scuttle the passage of key legislations. Therefore, one would need to watch out for the efficacy of his choice of Naidu as the parliamentary affairs minister and man friday to handle the opposition parties. If Naidu fails to deliver the goods, Modi can safely say goodbye to his dream to run the country for at least 10 years.
Rumor has it that Modi has plans for a grand gesture in the near future—the announcement of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary celebrations. This would fit in with Modi’s political correctness, as he started the most significant day of his 63 years—swearing-in as PM—by paying obeisance at Rajghat to the father of the nation. But the period of symbolism and images has gone. Now is the time to govern.