Balancing caste and regional equations, as the BJP gets ready for the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh early next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday made one of his biggest political moves since coming to power and expanded his Union Council of Ministers to include 19 new faces and elevate senior leader Prakash Javadekar to Cabinet rank.
Seventeen of the new ministers are from the BJP: S S Ahluwalia, Faggan Singh Kulaste, Arjun Ram Meghwal, Vijay Goel, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi, Rajen Gohain, Anil Madhav Dave, Parshottam Rupala, M J Akbar, Jasvantsinh Bhabhor, Mahendra Nath Pandey, Ajay Tamta, Krishna Raj, Mansukh Mandaviya, CR Chaudhary, PP Chaudhary and Subhash Bhamre.
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The other two are from NDA allies: Anupriya Singh Patel of Apna Dal and Ramdas Athawale of RPI.
Also taking the oath Tuesday during a ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan was Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment (Independent charge), who was promoted to Cabinet Minister.
PM Modi dropped five junior ministers: Nihal Chand Meghwal, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Manuskhbhai D Vasava and M K Kundariya.
With the revamp, the number of Union ministers rose from 66 to 78, just four short of the permitted strength, and drew criticism that it did not reflect Modi’s promise of “minimum government and maximum governance.”
The new ministers come from 10 states: three each from UP and Gujarat, one from Uttarakhand and the rest from Rajasthan, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Assam.
With his eyes set on the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the Prime Minister has inducted a number of ministers from the backward classes: five belong to Dalit communities, three to Scheduled Tribes and two to OBC communities. The presence of Dalit leaders also provides a peek into BJP’s strategy for the Uttar Pradesh elections due in early 2017. Although BJP chief Amit Shah had declared the ruling Samajwadi Party as his main political rival, the BJP’s focus seems to be on wooing non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs to expand its support base.
The BJP’s calculation is that Mayawati’s BSP, which usually banks on the state’s 20 per cent Dalit vote, would not be able to form the government unless it draws support from other groups, including OBCs, Muslims and upper castes — a formula it had successfully adopted in 2007.
The five new ministers from the SC community are Ramdas Athawale (Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra), Krishna Raj (Shajahanpur, UP), Arjun Ram Meghwal (Bikaner, Rajasthan), Ramesh Jigajinagi (Bijapur, Karnataka) and Ajay Tamta (Almora, Uttarakhand).
By inducting Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel, the BJP has moved to neutralise SP’s attempt to woo another dominant OBC community, the Kurmis, by bringing back former Union minister Beni Prasad Verma to its fold.
The BJP hopes that Patel, a firebrand young leader, whose performance in the Lok Sabha has been impressive, will also be able to foil the efforts of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to wean away Kurmi votes. Kumar has addressed a number of rallies in Uttar Pradesh recently.
The Prime Minister, who held a series of discussions with BJP chief Shah before finalising the list, has also tried to satisfy the party’s core support base, the forward castes, by including Goel, Gohain, Dave, Rupala and Pandey.
Pandey is from Uttar Pradesh, and the move seeks to blunt the Congress’s bid to reach out to the community by projecting a Brahmin face, a theme its key strategist Prashant Kishor has been pushing.
While former journalist M J Akbar is being seen as another Muslim face of the government, S S Ahluwalia’s induction is significant as the party is betting big on Punjab where it is facing a fierce fight from AAP and the Congress.