Modi Cabinet selection cautious: respecting seniority, PM reaches out to party

Prime Minister Narendra Modi after taking oath on Monday. ( Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi) Prime Minister Narendra Modi after taking oath on Monday. ( Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Cabinet selection cautious: respecting seniority, Modi reaches out to party

Rajnath, Sushma and Jaitley in CCS; no non-political faces yet, work in progress

After a campaign that revolved completely around him and a historic victory that had his name written all over it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi preferred to play safe in his first foray into Cabinet formation.

Following the time-tested pattern of seniority and proportional representation to the extent possible, he showed a clear inclination to accommodate the party’s suggestions and priorities, and avoided any radical ruptures from precedent.

At the same time, the helm of the government, beginning with the PM himself, for the first time comprises leaders who have never held a portfolio in the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) which is the apex decision-making body of the Cabinet.

This means that besides following the learning curve, there is an opportunity for the new team to innovate and improve.

However, one of Modi’s first challenges would be to forge an understanding with and among the CCS members, which would include party heavyweights starting with Rajnath Singh, who stood by Modi in party fora despite severe criticism, Sushma Swaraj, who for most of the time stood on the other side among critics, and Arun Jaitley, who has held up the Delhi end for Modi but has not always found himself on the same page with the party hierarchy.

On the face of it, the scene appears set for the PM to exercise authority and control through his team of advisers and bureaucrats in a possibly large and well-oiled PMO. Yet, politically, he would have to meet the challenge of effectively moderating between ensuring total command and consensus-building in the CCS and maybe also in the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA).

The seniority principle, which the BJP as a party is quite mindful of, has not only been followed but was reflected in the order of protocol in which the ministers took oath. For instance, there was considerable debate on whether M Venkaiah Naidu’s swearing-in should be before or after Nitin Gadkari’s. It was eventually decided that since Naidu became party president prior to Gadkari, he should be considered senior. Similarly, the two former Leaders of Opposition were ranked in the eventual order.

Though there was no formal declarations of portfolios, BJP leaders indicated that Rajnath Singh was expected to head Home while Swaraj would get External Affairs and Jaitley Finance along with Defence in the CCS.

These leaders along with the likes of Gopinath Munde, Ananth Kumar will also form the core of the CCPA which would eventually have to clear all politically sensitive decisions.

The 45-member council of ministers appears much leaner as compared to UPA I where Manmohan Singh led to Rashtrapati Bhavan a 67-member council of ministers when he first became the Prime Minister in 2004. In his second term, his team swelled to 78. Even A B Vajpayee was sworn in with a mega team of 71 ministers in 1999. The average age of the 24-member cabinet — including Modi — is 60 while elders like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have been left out.

But the rest of the Cabinet selection bears out the conservative pattern even more explicitly. There are no non-politicians in the list despite the BJP indicating on several occasions that it would rope in sector specialists, technocrats and people who have excelled in other fields into the governance mix.

The burden to accommodate, as is always the case in the such an exercise, does come across. Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has a fair number along with Bihar and Karnataka as these were states where the BJP has performed beyond expectations.
Muzaffarnagar riot-accused Sanjeev Balyan has been included as a Minister of State. On the other hand, BJP-ruled states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have gone relatively under-represented. While election bound states – Maharashtra (seven ministers) and Haryana (two ministers) – have got their fair bit of representation, Jharkhand, slated to go to polls soon, has gone under-represented.

Between the two Houses, the Rajya Sabha has managed a healthy share given that there were 282 Lok Sabha MPs to pick from. Six of the eight Rajya Sabha Members in the Council have Cabinet status; Nirmala Sitharaman and Prakash Javadekar, whose term expired last month, were included as party nominees. They would now have to get themselves back into Parliament, most likely through Rajya Sabha.

As for the social composition, nine of 23 Cabinet ministers (about 40 per cent) are from upper-castes; two are Dalits and one member is from the tribal community with former Congress leader Najma Heptullah is the lone Muslim face in the entire government.

While there was no formal announcement of the portfolios of the ministers sworn-in till late tonight, Modi tweeted that he went into a meeting with government officials late in the night at Gujarat Bhawan after finishing the formal engagements of the day.