A not-so-smooth Cabinet reshuffle: Rejig hides more than it reveals

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Setting caste and religious factors aside, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reshuffle of the council of ministers is a work in progress. And in this phase, it appears to have been prompted by the motive to sideline traditional heavyweights in the party, while inducting those who will be personally loyal to the PM.

It is a move that hides more than it reveals — that Water Resources Minister Uma Bharati’s load was lightened although the signals were that she would be dropped altogether; the ‘intransigence’ of Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, who held many meetings to ensure he was not moved from his perch; that three top ministers held a meeting at Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence; and the petitioning by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj — all suggest that the reshuffle was not the smooth affair it was anticipated to be and a few ministers just dug their heels in and refused to go.

The elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman is being seen by the party as a double promotion — not just to Cabinet rank but also to the CCS, in which she will sit at the high table with leaders like Rajnath Singh. This is the surest signal that the old guard in the BJP should not consider itself secure. 

Sources close to alliance partners like Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu suggest that neither is happy about the fact that it was limited to a BJP-only affair and that they were not even sounded out. The Opposition in Bihar, especially Lalu Prasad, has made capital of the fact that although Kumar crossed over to the BJP, the BJP has snubbed him. The Shiv Sena has made its opinion on the matter quite clear.

It is possible that weighed down by the BJP’s internal contradictions, the PM opted to limit the fallout, postponing placating the alliance partners.

In caste terms too, the reshuffle is largely limited to upper castes — Brahmin, Bhumihar, Rajput — with the inclusion of just one Dalit (Virendra Kumar, a Khatik from Madhya Pradesh). In appointing retired bureaucrats as ministers with independent charge, the PM might have wanted to signal that performance would be the government’s most important priority in the days to come. But this has also signalled that performance will be the criterion for judging continuance in the government.

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