5 reasons why Sunday's reshuffle was a show stopper before Modi meets CMs

Officials believe that the Modi government is sending out a message through this reshuffle that ministries are equal
The bureaucratic reshuffle on Sunday, involving 22 top civil servants, was different from any other under the Narendra Modi government so far. Also, the latest exercise would have a significant bearing on many aspects of governance as the country tries to contain the spread of coronavirus while working out steps for lifting the nationwide lockdown. There are at least five reasons why:

Reason 1: In an extremely unusual development, the Centre moved out two officials, counted among the most efficient, from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Additional secretary in the PMO Tarun Bajaj was appointed secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, to replace Atanu Chakraborty who’s superannuating end of this month. This Haryana cadre 1988 batch IAS had an earlier stint in the finance ministry and it’s felt that he would be in a position to lead the team working on economic revival during the current crisis.

The other PMO additional secretary, AK Sharma, a Gujarat cadre IAS from the 1988 batch, has been moved as secretary, Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME). At any other time, MSME would have been labelled as a light-weight and low-profile ministry, especially when compared to the PMO. But Sharma, who has worked with Modi for several years even in the Gujarat government and has given him results in flagship projects such as Vibrant Gujarat, has been chosen for this task at MSME when this sector requires the biggest push, people in the know said.

Therefore, the shift from PMO to MSME should be seen as a reason for celebration in the case of Sharma, the go-to-man for India Inc when it comes to trouble shooting in infrastructure and economic matters, according to officials. This scenario is in sharp contrast to at least two recent instances of bureaucratic reshuffle which were termed as shunting and sidelining of civil servants—in October 2014, then finance secretary Arvind Mayaram was shifted to the ministry of tourism and subsequently to the ministry of minority affairs. Also, in July 2019, Subhash Chandra Garg, then finance secretary was moved to the power ministry. Garg opted for voluntary retirement.

Officials believe that the Modi government is sending out a message through this reshuffle that ministries are equal.

Reason 2: It’s not just about getting two efficient officials to head ministries and departments which need strong leadership. It’s important that Sharma and Bajaj would be able to coordinate better with the PMO while being in charge of MSME and DEA, both for working out relief packages and ensuring their effectiveness, it is felt. In handling of the Covid-19 crisis, PMO has kept at least one of its officials in all the 11 empowered groups, making it clear how Modi wants the tasks--ranging from medical emergency plans to logistics and economic measures to strategic issues related to lockdown-- to be monitored.  

Reason 3: That brings us to the third point as to why the latest reshuffle is bigger in scope and scale. Sharma as the MSME secretary will be the only official to be present in three empowered groups set up for Covid and lockdown management. While he was already in two groups (ensuring availability of essential medical equipment and strategic issues on lockdown), now he will replace the current MSME secretary Arun Panda to head the empowered panel on augmenting human resources and capacity building. Panda retires end of this month. Bajaj too will have a bigger role in fighting the corona crisis. From being a part of the logistics empowered group currently, he will go on to head  the economic and welfare measures group, which is now under Chakraborty as the DEA secretary.

Reason 4: A few other changes made on Sunday stand out. For instance, Orissa cadre IAS of 1987 batch Rajesh Verma, special secretary  in the department of agriculture, cooperative and farmers welfare, has been named as the next corporate affairs secretary to replace another Orissa cadre officer Injeti Srinivas, who’s scheduled to superannuate end of May. With new IBC cases likely to be on hold for at least six months, Verma would get time to pick up the technical nuances of the ministry. It’s still unclear whether the government has other plans for Srinivas, who’s considered among the best in the current lot.

Shifting out two secretaries related to food is also significant at a time when availability of food products is a raging issue during the lockdown. Secretary in the department of food and public distribution Ravi Kant, a 1984 batch Bihar cadre IAS, has been moved to the department of ex-serviceman welfare in the defence ministry. And, Pawan Kumar Agarwal, a 1985 batch West Bengal cadre IAS, who has been secretary, department of consumer affairs under ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution, has been shifted as logistics special secretary in the commerce ministry.  

Moving the information and broadcasting secretary during a crisis period is also unusual. I&B secretary Ravi Mittal, a 1986 batch Bihar cadre IAS, has been made sports secretary. The status of the current sports secretary Radheyshyam Julaniya, a 1985 batch Madhya Pradesh cadre IAS, was not specified. Jharkhand cadre 1985 batch IAS Amit Khare, secretary, department of higher education, will hold additional charge of I&B.    

The three-month extension given to health secretary Preeti Sudan, an Andhra cadre 1983 batch officer, was expected as the government wouldn’t want any disruption in the core management of Covid. Meanwhile, rural development secretary Rajesh Bhushan, a Bihar cadre IAS of 1987 batch, has been appointed OSD in the health ministry in the rank and file of secretary.

Reason 5: Finally, one of the biggest bureaucratic reshuffle came just ahead of the PM’s video conference meeting with all chief ministers starting at 10 am on Monday. The messaging from the Centre is clearly that the government is serious about bringing relief to the MSME sector hit hard by the lockdown and that it’s ready to manage the badly dented economy. For that, the PMO has sent two of its best men, the only two additional secretaries it had, to the ministries of finance and MSME.

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