Face readers who examine the countenance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new Cabinet will be puzzled by the takeaway. It has only one face, Modi. But it has a number of expressions, the ministers.
From Nehru to Manmohan Singh, the Union Cabinet would reflect numerous faces of the government. Now, Modi banking on his countrywide charisma and visage vitality has turned the institution into a faceless façade of centralism. For media consumption, last week’s reshuffle was to purge deadwood and reward performers. High rollers Prakash Javadekar, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Harsh Vardhan were ejected to convey the message that futile funambulists and pompous paladins would not be tolerated in the Modiverse. The prime minister’s overwhelming objective was to infuse new and loyal blood from outside the predictable political universe.
That said, names and numbers hardly define the quality of governance. Relatively unknown nobodies owed their sudden celebrity to unexpected ministerial berths. Last week, Modi gifted the nation a maximum government. In the first recast of his government this term, he booted out 12 ministers and inducted 26 new names. With 77 ministers, Modi rules the largest Cabinet in his second term. It is a roll call of USPs. It has the maximum number of women. It is packed with qualified technocrats and retired civil servants. It boasts maximum representation of backward and economically weaker sections. It is an ideal mix of experience and youth energy.
On the whole, Modi’s new team is more presentable, robust and desirable like a Dhoni-led ODI team. Or, a mix of Reliance macho and Infosys craft. None of the new stars are connected with old regional or caste satraps. They were randomly picked by the PM for their local utility or personal loyalty. To prove the point that they owe their elevation solely to him, Modi invited them home a few hours before their swearing in to assign a list of dos and don’ts — an unprecedented act for an unpredictable prime minister. Never before has any other PM stood before new ministers with a mike in hand and instructed and advised them on the importance of efficacious administration and spelt out his mission and mission. Dos and Don’ts were clearly spelt out. Senior ministers like Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Amit Shah and BJP president J P Nadda were conspicuous by their presence.
Modi’s Cabinet comprises dependable and trustworthy individuals, not leaders. It is he who defines policies that have to be implemented faultlessly. His new lieutenants are from various states, and are not even party leaders or junior ministers. Many of them had non-BJP accreditation. Narayan Rane, Jyotiraditya Scindia, RP Singh, Sarbananda Sonawal and Ashwani Vaishnaw reflect the changing palette of the BJPled government.
During the past seven years, the saffron pigmentation of the government has been substantially diluted in favour of allies and professionals with sound track records. Currently, around 50 per cent of ministers are not associated with the RSS. For example, Ashwini Vaishnaw has no Sangh or BJP affiliations before he became MP. The 1994 batch Odisha cadre former IAS officer had served briefly as private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He quit the civil service and went to the US to study before working with various multinationals. He is considered an expert in infrastructure development. He runs his own small business as well. It is for the first time that such a former junior officer has been allocated three important ministries — Communication, IT and Railways. Vaishnaw’s mandate is clearly defined: corporatise railways and ensure synergy with telecom sector. He is Modi’s personal choice. The PM had personally spoken to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to get Vaishnaw elected as a Rajya Sabha member with BJD’s open support.
Hardeep Singh Puri, a 1974 batch former IFS officer, is the new petroleum minister because of his experience in WTO and expertise on ethanol technology which will play an important role in green energy. Former IAS officer Raj Kumar Singh was elevated because of his strong administrative skills. The only relevant sound bite is that Modi places great faith in the bureaucracy and its empowerment. In 2019, Dr S Jaishankar was Modi’s surprise appointment as foreign minister. He is the first retired diplomat to become a Cabinet- rank minister. Previously, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Natwar Singh, too, were ministers but not in the Foreign Office, and not immediately after superannuation.
Never before have principal secretaries and advisors to the Prime Minister enjoyed Cabinet Minister rank. Sterling examples are former principal secretary Nripen Mishra and currently Pramod Kumar Mishra, and NSA Ajit Doval.
The reshuffle indicates that Modi is slowly sidelining people connected with BJP 1.0 regime. Like Advani and Vajpayee created their own team of youngsters, Modi and Shah are grooming a team of leaders from various states who would adopt them as their idols. It was Shah who gave tickets to most of the sitting ministers. He is also the first Home Minister to hold the new Ministry of Cooperation to deal with the states. Perceptively, this puts him on a pedestal slightly higher than Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari.
However, in spite of the maximum size of the government, over half the ministers hold two or more totally unrelated portfolios. For example, of the 30 Cabinet ministers, 10 run two ministries each, four control three and the remaining 16 are in charge of only one ministry. The allocation of ministries defies logic. Bhupinder Yadav, a lawyer by profession, has been given Labour and Environment. Puri gets Petroleum while retaining Urban Development, Piyush Goel, better suited for Finance, was given Commerce along with Consumer Affairs and Textiles. Even 21 of the 45 Ministers of State have two or more portfolios. Dr Jitendra Singh is perhaps is the only Minister of State who has six ministries, including independent charge of two.
Most of these mantris will be burning precious petrol commuting from one office to another. Since the emphasis was on getting a new team, the rationalisation of ministries was put on the back burner. Nevertheless, Modi has provided a stable government with minimum tinkering. While his predecessors like Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh shuffled and reshuffled their Cabinets over dozen times per term, Modi has shaken his pack only four times in seven years.
He is yet to master the architecture of ensuring minimum government because, despite his genius at innovation, many colleagues are now overburdened while others are looking for more work. With the belief that his indispensability has acquired political immortality, Modi’s energy is focused on minimising and maximising individuals within his party and the government. Governance is a master tactician’s game of numbers based on political calculations for a winning formula. And that winning slogan would be Modi Ke Kam Par aur Modi Ke Nam Par. It has worked wonderfully so far. The process of Modifying the Government with its steady desaffronisation has been accelerated.