Some familiar faces in the Modi Cabinet might be missing in his second innings. The average age is likely to be 10 years younger. Several protégés of senior ministers have over the last year switched loyalties to Amit Shah, 54, as he is seen as the man who matters. Incidentally, the only three Cabinet ministers on the dais when Narendra Modi was felicitated at the BJP office were Rajnath Singh, J P Nadda and Thawarchand Gehlot.
Congresspersons privately blame P Chidambaram and Navjot Singh Sidhu for damaging the party’s image. Chidambaram as chairperson of the manifesto committee, along with Rahul Gandhi’s young apolitical brains trust, insisted on inserting a clause in the party manifesto calling for amendment to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). While human rights activists applauded the move, it hardly made political sense in the wake of Pulwama and Narendra Modi’s campaign whipping up nationalistic fervour. Voters frequently mentioned the manifesto as a black mark against the Congress. Similarly Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was infuriated with his minister Sidhu for giving a bear hug to Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa when he visited Lahore for Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. The BJP made capital out of the photograph. Many are too timid to blame Rahul for surrounding himself with inexperienced youngsters who have an NGO mindset rather than an understanding of electoral politics.
Did the Congress fritter away an opportunity in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s debut in national politics this year? What was hoped to be the party’s Brahmastra was introduced belatedly and somewhat casually in the middle of the campaign, and Priyanka was unable to make much impact. Her charm and strong personality attracted crowds and media attention, but did not garner votes. Unlike Rahul, Priyanka writes her speeches herself and has an intuitive understanding of what issues to take up with different audiences. But since she did not want to overshadow her brother, she played a secondary role. Some in the party believe that if she was put at the helm instead of her brother, the Congress’s fortunes could revive. There is no competitive rivalry between the two siblings, who are very close. But Sonia, like Indian and Italian mothers, believes that dynasties can only have a male lineage. The suggestion from well-meaning outsiders that a charismatic non-Gandhi be made party president, say Captain Amarinder Singh or Sachin Pilot, is unthinkable since it could lead to a potential bloodbath among aspiring candidates.
LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan has been described as a weathervane of Indian politics for good reason. He is one of those rare politicians who manages each time to sniff out which is the winning side and jump onto the bandwagon. From 1989 onwards he has been in the Cabinets of V P Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. In 2009, when for a brief period he was aligned with neither the BJP or Congress, he managed to get a Rajya Sabha seat from Lalu Prasad. And though he did not contest polls this time, his son Chirag Paswan got a ticket from the NDA and he himself has been assured a Rajya Sabha seat by the BJP. That way he continues to retain his government residence, 12, Janpath, which he has occupied for three decades.
In this election, three sets of parent and offspring candidates contested. Only one duo was successful, Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi, who won from Sultanpur and Pilibhit respectively. Maneka, in fact, sacrificed her own safe seat of Pilibhit for Varun and agreed to fight from Sultanpur, a much tougher contest. In western UP, Ajit Singh nominated son Jayant Chaudhary to his father Charan Singh’s old seat of Baghpat and decided to fight from the possibly safer seat of Muzaffarnagar, which has a large Muslim population. But both father and son lost. In Haryana, former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda, a reluctant candidate, was defeated from Sonipat, while his son Deepender lost narrowly from Rohtak constituency, which was considered the family’s citadel.
Ever since Narendra Modi used the phrase ‘Khan Market gang’, his followers want to make the point that the market’s customers need to be taken down a peg. BJP leader Ram Madhav announced to the media that he and his party workers would occupy the market to celebrate the poll victory, as it was no one’s exclusive property. Meanwhile, the market shopkeepers hastily decorated the area with green-and-saffron BJP balloons.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 26, 2019 under the title ‘Inside Track: New look Cabinet’.