A vote for competence

With a little more than a year and a half to go for the Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday effected a long-awaited reshuffle of his council of ministers, which was a clear attempt to improve the capability quotient by bringing in new people with proven administrative experience. Of the nine new ministers of state, four were former bureaucrats with distinguished service records. It is also significant that three of them have been given independent charge of important ministries straightaway, indicating Mr Modi’s desire to address concerns over talent deficit in his party and an inadequate bench strength to fill in key portfolios. The Prime Minister also rewarded the performance of a few of his ministers and that is why Dharmendra Pradhan, minister for petroleum and gas, as well as Piyush Goyal, power minister, were promoted to Cabinet rank while Nitin Gadkari was given additional responsibilities.

That possibly was also the reason why Suresh Prabhu, outgoing Railways minister, was given the benefit of the doubt even though his tenure was plagued with several safety lapses. His performance as minister for four years under Atal Bihari Vajpayee perhaps weighed in his favour. Mr Prabhu has now been given the crucial charge of commerce and industry and it is hoped that he will bring a more positive approach to trade issues and will be able to use exports as a genuine engine for domestic growth. The biggest surprise, of course, was the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister despite her middling performance as commerce and industry minister. She now becomes part of the Cabinet Committee on Security, along with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, making it the first time in India’s history that two women are on one of the country’s top decision-making bodies. Ms Sitharaman takes over at a time of complex challenges for the ministry and given that the defence portfolio involves signing on big purchase bills, it is likely that her integrity was a factor that favoured her selection.

While there is much to admire about these choices, there were some unconvincing factors as well. For instance, it is hard to understand why the vacated portfolios were treated as adjuncts: Skill development has been clubbed with the ministry of petroleum and water resources with road transport and shipping. Strangely, the coal ministry has been grouped with railways, but the mines portfolio has been packaged with the rural development ministry. There are other such adjunct ministries as well: For example, environment. There was a hint of some political compulsions as the PM found it necessary to include people like Anantkumar Hegde, who hails from Karnataka, a state which goes to the polls next year. The five-time Member of Parliament made headlines recently for slapping a doctor and was charged with giving a hate speech in 2016.

Overall, the message is clear: While performance will be rewarded, that alone won’t be enough. That six of the nine new ministers are from the Lok Sabha, and only one from the Rajya Sabha, implies that Mr Modi is not encouraging back-door entry into his council of ministers and is insisting on candidates who can win elections. The reshuffle also shows Mr Modi has a clear eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. New additions to the cabinet include two each from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — key states that together elect 120 MPs to the Lower House.

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