Ahead of Narendra Modi beginning his second stint as Prime Minister, the names of prospective members of his Council of Ministers surfaced by the minute until Wednesday, as if somebody were drawing lots. It is not in the least so.
Cabinet formation is a complex exercise, given the diversity of India. The Prime Minister has to ensure that he or she puts in place a team with experience and talent, while ensuring representation for all states and communities. The task is even more challenging when it is a multi-party government.
Though the BJP has a comfortable majority – 303 out of 542 – Modi has chosen to keep his NDA partners on board.
The credit for running the first successful NDA coalition government at the Centre goes to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His two previous attempts had failed. Having acquired multiple allies by the time elections were held in 1999, the BJP had gained the self-confidence and skills for running an alliance government.
The composition of the 1999-2004 Vajpayee government underlines the patchwork he had to do to accommodate not just different interests from within his own parties, but also allies, from the DMK and its Tamil fellow-travellers to the JD(U), Trinamool Congress, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena.
At the core of the government were senior BJP leaders L K Advani (Home), Jaswant Singh (External Affairs), Yashwant Sinha (Finance), Murli Manohar Joshi (Human Resource Development), Shanta Kumar (Consumer Affairs), Pramod Mahajan (Telecom), Sushma Swaraj (Health), M Venkaiah Naidu (Rural Development), Rajnath Singh (Agriculture), Arun Jaitley (Law) and Uma Bharti (Drinking Water).
Samta Party (later merged with JD-U) leader George Fernandes, who was the first important leader from the “secular bloc” to align with the BJP, was rewarded with Defence, which implied a slot in the Cabinet Committee on Security. Fellow Socialists Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav were given Railways and Labour, respectively.
Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena was made the Lok Sabha Speaker after having been Minister for Heavy Industries. Suresh Prabhu, also of the Shiv Sena, was given Energy. Ram Vilas Paswan of the LJP had the attractive Communications portfolio. Naveen Patnaik of the BJD was allocated Mines. Murasoli Maran and T R Baalu, both of the DMK, were given Commerce & Industry and Environment & Forests, respectively. Mamata Banerjee was given Railways, until she decided to leave the government.
UP was represented by Vajpayee himself, besides Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, Santosh Gangwar, Maneka Gandhi and many others. Advani represented Gujarat; Jaswant Singh was a face from Rajasthan. Bihar had a large representation — Yashwant Sinha, Nitish, Shatrughan Sinha, Shahnawaz Hussain, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sanjay Paswan and Rajiv Pratap Rudy; Madhya Pradesh had Sunderlal Patwa, Satyanarayan Jatiya, Uma Bharti, Sumitra Mahajan and Prahlad Patel. Kariya Munda and Babulal Marandi, both Adivasis, were faces from Jharkhand.
Apart from the Shiv Sena leaders, Maharashtra had prominent names like Ram Naik, Pramod Mahajan, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, Annasaheb Patil and Ved Prakash Goyal and Jayawantiben Mehta in the government.
The BJP did not have many MPs from Andhra Pradesh, but the state had many representatives in the government —M Venkaiah Naidu, Bangaru Laxman, Bandaru Dattatreya and Ch Vidyasagar Rao. Tamil Nadu too had many ministers, from the Dravida parties, including P R Kumaramangalam, Jana Krishnamurthi, Pon Radhakrishnan and S Thirunavukkarasar.
While Vajpayee, Joshi, Sushma Swaraj, Mahajan, Jaitley, Shanta Kumar and Ananth Kumar happened to be Brahmins, Jaswant Singh, Rajnath Singh and Rudy were Rajputs. Advani hailed from the Sindhi community, as did Ram Jethmalani. The Dalits were represented by Paswan, Satyanarayan Jatiya, Kailash Meghwal and Sanjay Paswan. Uma Bharti and Prahlad Patel were Lodh Rajputs. Sunderlal Patwa and Ved Prakash Goyal were Vaishyas. Sahib Singh Verma came from the Jat community; the two Sinhas and Prasad were all Kayasths. Nitish, Sharad Yadav and Nagmani of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Democratic were all OBCs.
P C Thomas of the Indian Federal Democratic Party represented both Kerala and the Christian community.
Fernandes represented Bihar and the Christian community. Mamata was the voice of West Bengal. Nitish belonged to the backward Kurmi community.
According to political folklore, the parting advice of Vajpayee to his successor Manmohan Singh of the Congress was not to have any representative of an ally or a supporting party in the Cabinet Committee on Security. In effect, it meant that none of them should be given any of the top four portfolios – Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance. And these portfolios were indeed given to Congress ministers in 2004.
Then Congress president Sonia Gandhi personally visited important regional leaders to get them on board the UPA after the general elections. The Left Front, which did not want to join the government, was given the post of Lok Sabha Speaker (Somnath Chatterjee). The SP and the BSP stayed out.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the UPA won 262 seats, of which the Congress alone got 206.
The Sonia-Manmohan combine followed the NDA model in running a coalition government. Allies were given substantial portfolios – NCP chief Sharad Pawar got Agriculture, Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution; DMK leader T R Baalu got Road Transport & Highways and Shipping; RJD’s Lalu Prasad got Railways; Paswan got Chemicals, Fertilisers and Steel.
Muslim faces included A R Antulay, Saif-ud-din Soz, Taslimuddin and E Ahamed, while A K Antony and Oscar Fernandes were Christians. Key Dalit representatives were Sushil Kumar Shinde, Meira Kumar, Mahaveer Prasad and Kumari Selja. Santosh Mohan Dev, B K Handique and P R Kyndiah came from the Northeast.
UPA-II had many of the same faces as in UPA-I, but it saw a greater representation of minorities and Dalits. They included Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Salman Khurshid, K Rahman Khan, Shinde, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Oscar Fernandes.
Modi, who came to power with a full BJP majority in 2014, showed less concession to allies than PMs running previous coalitions had done. He included Paswan of the LJP, Anant Geete of the Shiv Sena and Harsimrat Kaur Badal (SAD) in his government, but gave them less important portfolios. The JD(U) had to make do just with the post of Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill put off BJP allies in the Northeast, but the BJP held its ground. It is another matter that the Bill lapsed.
Relations with the Sena came under strain to the extent that the two parties fought the Maharashtra Assembly polls separately. However, they patched up for state government formation, and later for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Similarly, the BJP also repaired ties with the JD(U).
Considering that the BJP has a full majority in Lok Sabha, the obvious question is: need the party accommodate its allies in the government? There are two reasons for doing so. One, the party is far from a majority in Rajya Sabha and needs support to pass Bills. Two, if the regional allies are abandoned, they may make things difficult for the BJP in the long run.