It is generally assumed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi effected the changes in his ministerial team unilaterally. After all, even senior ministers were in the dark about portfolio allocations until they were actually at Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing-in. But this assumption is incorrect. The PM met the big four of his Cabinet — Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari — separately and individually. He asked them if they had any suggestion as to who should be made defence minister. Nobody mentioned any name. The PM then proposed that the four meet later together. The ministers met at Rajnath Singh’s residence but no one really talked about the Cabinet reshuffle. Perhaps Jaitley had an inkling of what was in the Prime Minister’s mind, but, if so, he did not reveal it to his colleagues.
Snatching her baby
The thankless task of informing Uma Bharti that she was losing her Ganga Rejuvenation portfolio was left to Ram Lal, the BJP organising secretary. The feisty Bharti complained to the RSS that the Ganga was her baby and she would not part with it. The PM refused to relent as Bharti has gained a reputation for absenteeism. Even before the Cabinet reshuffle, Modi had felt that it made sense for Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari, who looks after navigation, dredging and inland waterways, to oversee the Ganga project. In fact, Bharti did not show up for two of the three joint meetings between the Shipping Ministry and the Ganga Rejuvenation Ministry attended by the PM’s principal secretary, Nripendra Misra. As a sop, it was finally decided that Bharti would be given the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. But she is not reconciled.
The big question is how Nirmala Sitharaman pipped everyone to the post and bagged the heavyweight Defence portfolio. The PM may be pleased with Sitharaman’s honesty, hard work, draftsmanship and ability to give a précis of lengthy documents, but other factors also weighed in her favour. An important consideration was that Sitharaman is from the South. With the departure of Venkaiah Naidu, there was a need to rectify the regional imbalance among the top five ministers. The only other minister from the South was Ananth Kumar and Modi didn’t think he fit the bill. Sitharaman is a Tamilian who has represented both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the Rajya Sabha. Her promotion, in a way, was a snub to some whom Amit Shah wanted to cut to size. Someone at the party headquarters deliberately leaked the news that Sitharaman was likely to be dropped, so as to put potential aspirants off their guard.
Reversal of fortunes
With Sushma Swaraj, Maneka Gandhi, Uma Bharti, Smriti Irani, Nirmala Sitharaman and Harsimrat Kaur, the Modi government has set a record for the largest number of women in the Cabinet. What is interesting is the fluctuating fortunes of the women ministers. Swaraj, Gandhi and Bharti are by far the senior-most in politics, but the two junior ministers, Irani and Sitharaman, have stolen their thunder. Bharti has managed to cling on to her position by the skin of her teeth and Gandhi continues in the low-profile Ministry of Women and Child Development. Despite her efforts, Swaraj has been unable to stall the rapid rise of Sitharaman and Irani. Sitharaman had impressed Arun Jaitley with her oratory and it was he who suggested that she be made a spokesperson in 2011. In 2012, Swaraj and Venkaiah Naidu opposed Sitharaman getting a Rajya Sabha seat from Rajasthan. Swaraj was also uncomfortable with Irani, who shares a similar Bharatiya nari image, becoming a popular campaigner for the party. But, thanks to Narendra Modi’s blessings, Irani was made a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat in 2011 and appointed HRD minister in 2014. Sitharaman finally got into Parliament in 2014, when she was made MoS, Commerce. Her elevation as Defence minister last week puts her a notch above Irani, now handling I&B and Textiles, and almost, but not quite, on a par with Swaraj.
The harshest criticism of the new ministerial inductions has come on WhatsApp groups of BJP loyalists and Sangh activists. It has been pointed out that many of the technocrats selected had chequered careers. The appointment of K Alphons and R K Singh was particularly galling, as both have openly worked against the Sangh in the past. Someone noted sarcastically that the Christian sentiment, “There is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than 99 who justly deserve heaven’’, is from the Bible and not part of Hindutva.