DAYS before the government marks its fourth year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reshuffled portfolios of his ministers, “temporarily” assigning Finance Ministry and Corporate Affairs to Piyush Goyal during the “period of indisposition” of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who underwent a renal transplant surgery on Monday. And removing Smriti Irani from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and assigning it to Minister of State (Independent Charge) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who has been MoS in the Ministry since November 2014.
While Goyal will continue with his charge of Railways and Coal Ministries, the reshuffle made two lateral shifts as well: Alphons Kannanthanam was relieved of his duties as Minister of State in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. He has been replaced by S S Ahluwalia who will assist Cabinet Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in the ministry. While Kannanthanam retains his duties as MoS (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of Tourism, Ahluwalia has been relieved as MoS in charge of Drinking Water and Sanitation to take charge as MoS in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
This reallocation of portfolios was announced late evening by Rashtrapati Bhavan. Since there is neither any new induction nor there is a change in ranks of the reshuffled ministers, no swearing-in ceremony is required for this.
Though the press communique called it a “reallocation of portfolios”, it also signalled the changing political weight of the ministers.
Assigning Finance to Piyush Goyal during Jaitley’s indisposition reflected an enhanced trust in Goyal’s capabilities to handle such a high-profile responsibility while retaining his heavyweight portfolios like Railways and Coal. The move also comes after the leg-up Goyal got during the Cabinet reshuffle last September when he was elevated to Cabinet rank and assigned the politically important Railways Ministry. The temporary charge of Finance adds to the rising profile of Goyal who was at the vanguard of defending and explaining demonetisation in the days and weeks after November 2016.
In contrast, divesting Irani of her I&B portfolio during an election year sends a signal to the party’s rank and file. Irani will retain Textiles which she has had since July 2016. For Irani, this is the second downgrade after she was shunted out from the crucial HRD portfolio in July 2016.
Irani’s tenure in I&B that lasted for less than 10 months was recently dogged by controversy. Most recently, Rashtrapati Bhavan was peeved at the way her Ministry had handled the National Film Awards; last month, the Prime Minister’s Office had to intervene to withdraw her unprecedented order blacklisting journalists in the name of cracking down on fake news; and her running battle with Prasar Bharati played out in public raising questions of institutional autonomy and government interference.
On May 3, the President was to hand over a select number of awards at the National Film Awards as had been conveyed to the I&B Ministry at least three weeks earlier. But the Ministry sent out invites to the awardees stating that the President would give the awards. The winners were informed just a day before the ceremony that most of them would get their awards from Irani which led to a protest — an estimated 50 of the 125 winners boycotted the ceremony.
This after Rashtrapati Bhavan had been in touch with I&B Ministry since March and had informed them that he would not spend more than an hour at the event. A month earlier, on April 2, the I&B Ministry issued guidelines to blacklist any journalist found to have “created and/ or propagated” fake news leading to protests by several news organisations and Opposition parties. Irani defended her decision but the statement had to be withdrawn in less than 24 hours after the Prime Minister’s Office intervened the next morning and directed that the matter of fake news be addressed by the Press Council of India.
In late February, the Ministry had sacked Managing Director of National Film Development Corp (NFDC) Nina Lath Gupta for allegedly not following protocol in conducting the government company’s corporate affairs. Gupta asked to leave “with immediate effect,” got a stay against her termination from the Delhi High Court. The Ministry had to backtrack on its order and issued a fresh termination letter to Gupta on April 24 withdrawing all allegations of impropriety against Gupta embarrassing the government once again.
Sworn in as the HRD Minister on May 26, 2014, Irani had run into several controversies there, too, and was replaced in July 2016 by Prakash Javadekar. Irani was then moved to the Textiles Ministry. In July 2017, when M Venkaiah Naidu decided to run for Vice President of India and stepped down, Irani was given the I&B Ministry.
Just before she was moved out of HRD, her Ministry was locked in a tussle with the PMO on the degree of autonomy that the government’s proposed “world-class universities” should enjoy. This is the fifth reshuffle in this government. While in November 2014, July 2016 and September 2107, the Cabinet saw the induction of new ministers and a reshuffle of portfolios, in July 2017 and on Monday there were only lateral shifts.