Cabinet reshuffle: Too late to make a difference

PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah at the oath taking ceremony for the Cabinet reshuffle on September 3, 2017. Photo: @ANI
First, Narendra Modi ran an election campaign that was modelled on the American presidential one. Then, after becoming prime minister, he started running the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) like the White House.

And now, with his first major reshuffle of his council of ministers in three and a half years, he has decided to appoint his ministers in the American style. He has inducted former bureaucrats who have little or nothing to with politics. Some of them may have politicked, but they have not been politicians.

Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. But, it has never happened on such a big scale. Even Rajiv Gandhi – who had 415 MPs from his party in the Lok Sabha – did not induct so many non-political persons into the council of ministers. This was despite the fact that he had nothing to fear from his party and no need to please his MPs.

Instead, the practice has always been to give domain experts the rank of minister but not membership of the government. Mr Modi has broken with that tradition. This marks an important change in as much as it takes the hybridisation of our system of governance one step further.


In the Parliamentary system, ministers are drawn from the legislature; in the American system – and non-Parliamentary systems generally – they can come from anywhere. As such, the head of government has a much bigger pool to choose from. Almost always, the persons chosen are for their specific qualifications and expertise.

By going outside the BJP’s political group, Mr Modi has not only set a healthy precedent, he has also acknowledged that there is a serious shortage of talent in the BJP. The message to the party is also clear that just chanting the party line is not going to be enough any longer. Aspirants will have to bring some expertise to the table as well.

We can expect this to be reflected in the distribution of tickets in 2019 as well, which also means that Mr Modi and Amit Shah no longer regard anyone to be a political heavyweight who must be rewarded. This, too, is an important change, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s two ministries between 1974 and 1984.

Ministerial reshuffling, sackings, and new appointments also reflect a major concern of the prime minister: The need to change the image of the government as also the topics of conversation that, after three-odd years, always centre around its goof-ups.

Shifting the focus

As was pointed out by T N Ninan in this paper recently, Mr Modi hasn’t been lacking in energy and effort. But, the outcomes from it have been singularly disappointing.

Even this may not have mattered so much – because, in the end, all governments and prime ministers fail – had it not been for the demonetisation fiasco. This has been so deeply embarrassing for Mr Modi personally. Even his outstanding triumph at Doklam in the confrontation with China has not been able to offer any comfort.

Not just that, the effort of his die-hard supporters to say that it was a success has made even his normal supporters squirm. Simply, no one buys that story anymore.

Now, for the next few days, media and other attention will shift to the new ministers. On Sunday, Mr Modi left for China, where he will attend the BRICS summit. By the time he returns, demonetisation, the decline in the rate of growth of GDP, among other things, will be nearly forgotten.

However, that will still not solve Mr Modi’s problem of performance. The problem is this: The ministers – old, new, and promoted – can’t do much in a year-and-a-half.  

Their plight is like that of the last four batsmen who are asked to score 200 runs in the last ten overs of a limited overs cricket match. As the Americans say, it ain’t gonna happen.

Finally, Mr Modi’s performance-to-votes will be judged by farmers whose incomes have declined in real terms over the past three years. Here he may have committed the same mistake as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government did during 1999-2003: Neglecting farmers.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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