The reshuffle of the Union cabinet is, above all else, a thumping reminder of the attributes that have made Prime Minister Narendra Modi such a formidable political force. We can quibble about some decisions, but overall, this reshuffle signals five important things.
First, the ability of the prime minister to constantly think politically, unencumbered by pieties of the past, and with a relentless eye to the future. There is no resting upon laurels, no notion of being tied down by fidelity to any particular individual, no matter what previous scripts have been imagined for them. In this sense, there is a clinical ruthlessness to the exercise, one that befits politics. The reshuffling of key portfolios like HRD, rural development, parliamentary affairs and the induction of a range of new faces are all with an eye to the future. Just contrast this with the Congress which even in opposition appears backward-looking when it comes to its choice of leaders.
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The second attribute is the working of the party and government in unison. Again, historical memories are short, but during UPA 2, the biggest illusion the Congress peddled was that in a parliamentary form of government, party organisation and government can run on two parallel tracks. The BJP, on the other hand, projects the sense of a party and government closely coordinated. In fact, the party president is not just an organisation man, as it were, but stamping his influence on government in a very visible way. Whatever one may think of this, the deep coordination helps the BJP be a more organised political force.
The third attribute of the BJP on display is that they are still in the process of continuing and deepening their political outreach. The BJP’s electoral machine had, in the 2014 election, relied on giving many new social constituencies a sense of empowerment. It had, in particular, tried to mobilise Dalit support. The Rohith Vemula suicide had, to some degree, exposed some of the inner contradictions of the BJP in appropriating Ambedkar while trying to marginalise Ambedkarites. In fact, Smriti Irani’s extraordinary theatre in Parliament over Hyderabad University had been seen by many, even in the BJP, as a setback to that outreach. But the BJP has, to an unprecedented degree, made it clear that Dalit incorporation by two strategies — a thousand small cuts to the BSP, and the induction of new Dalit leaders, will continue. To what extent this outreach will not be weighed down by the contradictions that still bedevil its base, is an open question. But the BJP’s opponents need to understand that this outreach, with all its limitations, unsettles politics more than the Congress’ genteel tokenism has historically done.
The fourth attribute of this reshuffle is the recognition that politics is, first and foremost, about social mediation. It is entirely proper that cabinet appointments be political; cabinets should be back-door entries for technocrats in rare circumstances. One of the key attributes of a good cabinet is its ability to do the job of political mediation. Is it embedded enough in electoral politics and social networks that matter for elections? In that sense, our democracy’s need for social engineering has domesticated loud proclamations on the size of cabinet. The government can be derailed by two things: It can be derailed by its own incompetence. But it can also be derailed by powerful social constituencies with street power; just remember what the Jats or Patels could potentially do to derail government. Many new faces are about signalling that the government is going to have to do that job of social mediation. It will need leaders who are embedded in different social contexts to be able to ensure that there are no unexpected shocks. Whether the raft of young OBC leaders who have been inducted can do this is an open question; if Congress experience is any guide, induction into cabinet can also often make you more unpopular in constituencies.
Fifth, the reshuffle shows the way in which the BJP is still keeping options open in UP. The question of the chief ministerial candidate in UP is open; it would be premature to jump to conclusions. But on the crucial ideological question — will the BJP shift towards Hindutva politics in UP — the answer is still more equivocal. For one thing, it is hard to come to conclusions about this from cabinet appointments. In political terms, you can run the argument either way: Is keeping a few of the rabid elements in the cabinet signalling that such behaviour will be rewarded, or is it one device to domesticate and ensure that such behaviour, while occasionally tolerated, does not cross the limits it might have if it had not been encumbered with any office at all? But there are still too many ministers whose track record on communalisation should make one very vigilant. This sugg-ests the BJP will still play both sides of the argument, partly because that is its social base in UP.
Certainly, while there are three or four ministries that deserve better, within political limits, a message has been sent about performance. But the talent debate can also be naive in two respects: The metric of performance as measured by the media is often off the mark. Second, the real issue is: Will the relationship between the PMO and the ministries also be transformed? Will this be genuine cabinet government or an all powerful PMO with a large entourage in tow?
Smriti Irani has been given a ministerial, if not a political demotion, based on quite overwhelmingly negative sentiment, not just on content but also style of functioning. HRD has, in the recent past, the misfortune across governments of having consistently had bad ministers. The performance of the politically talented Prakash Javadekar will be, therefore, an important litmus test in two respects. Can he domesticate the ideological moorings of the party, and its links to the RSS enough not to give in to a crushing mediocrity and cultural and political imperiousness? And can he turn around a ministry that has consistently jeopardised the future of India?
The induction of formidable parliamentary veteran S.S. Ahluwalia, who has been given both agriculture and parliamentary affairs, is an interesting choice, not least because in combination with Ananth Kumar’s elevation, it might signal taking parliamentary management more seriously. There is much more to be said for other individual choices. But there is no doubt that the PM has audaciously upped the political game.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Audacious moves’)
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