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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s council of ministers reflects the usual regional, caste and other considerations that influence cabinet choices, but it does not appear to be limited by them. It also includes some unexpected choices that suggest Modi is prepared to take risks for potential big payoffs. While several ministries are expected to be restructured for greater efficiency gains, the most concrete change has been the merging of the coal, power and renewable energy ministries. This will end the destructive trend of the coal and power ministries undercutting each other in the years of UPA 2, and the delay of various committees, and is the first step towards an integrated energy policy.
A standout example of the Modi imprint has been the HRD ministry, given to the 38-year-old Smriti Irani rather than a party veteran. Education, skills and employability are the most pressing concerns for those who voted for Modi, and he has spoken to their aspirations, validated and reassured them, at nearly every campaign venue. The HRD ministry should be a primary area of focus for him, to undo the damage of the two UPA terms, where rights were handed out, but in which the quality of education made such schooling virtually worthless. Key education bills mouldered, even as the minister pursued fanciful projects like the Aakash tablet, or tinkered with school examinations. Skill development was foregrounded in policymaking only in 2009, and the responsibility remained fragmented among agencies. The few good ideas that were thrown up, like community colleges, must now be purposefully executed by the new HRD ministry. As an outsider, Irani has a chance to jolt the ministry out of its patronage-oriented approach, and she must bring a practical urgency to the job.
There are other areas that need focused attention for Modi to wring the most out of his team. He has indicated that changing constricting labour laws will be a priority for his government, and the ministry of labour will have to work with those of commerce and industry to find ways to inject flexibilities, and achieve the ambitious manufacturing goals that the BJP manifesto promised. The government will have to shift its focus to environment as well, speeding clearances and keeping investment targets in mind while protecting forests, ecologies and tribal rights. By and large, Modi’s cabinet choices are a job well begun. An expansion is inevitable, given that Arun Jaitley is only a placeholder defence minister. Given the importance of this allocation, however, and in the backdrop of the decisive mandate that gives Modi a free hand, it is odd that this should have been left undone.