The third reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministry is remarkable for the signal it sends of a younger generation of leaders in the party climbing into the spotlight. It may well be true that power in the BJP is centralised as never before in a high command of two — PM Modi and party president Amit Shah. Yet, at the same time, Sunday’s remaking of the ministry would appear to have put in higher places a set of leaders belonging to a BJP moving on from its foundational Atal-Advani era — they include Dharmendra Pradhan, who gets charge of skill development alongside petroleum, Piyush Goyal, who now heads the crucial Railway ministry along with coal and Nirmala Sitharaman, who becomes the Union defence minister and enters the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The elevation of Sitharaman is a particularly resonant moment. A relative newcomer to the party and government is being trusted with a heavyweight portfolio. There is a powerful symbolism, too, about the country getting only its second woman defence minister and in Sitharaman now taking her place in the overwhelmingly male environs of the CCS along with her colleague Sushma Swaraj.
Sitharaman’s elevation is critical for another reason — finally, the defence ministry will have a full-time minister. Ever since Manohar Parrikar left the ministry to go back to Goa, it has not got the attention it deserves, especially in a time of formidable internal and external security challenges. India’s borders continue to be uneasy — the prolonged Doklam stand-off has been resolved but it has left behind a heightened awareness of the dangers and dilemmas of engaging an increasingly ambitious China in a changing world order. Pakistan, roiled by internal turmoil, continues to throw up difficult choices and conundrums for Delhi and the new defence minister must also hit the ground running on threats posed by terror groups and the renewed unrest in Kashmir.
With the Modi government in its fourth year, the elevation of the Minister for Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, to cabinet rank is significant, too — what he does with his enhanced stature will be carefully watched, given that an abiding criticism of the Modi government so far has been its perceived encouragement of a majoritarian culture and inattention to minority insecurities and concerns. In the remaining time before the 2019 general elections, this reshuffle, while nodding to caste and regional considerations, has also opened up the ministry to “outsiders” to mainstream politics — of the nine additions to the ministry, four are senior civil servants who joined the BJP. K.J. Alphons, R.K. Singh, Satya Pal Singh and Hardeep Singh Puri are interesting choices for ministers and they will now have to prove that they were wise choices as well. Finally, the attempt in Sunday’s reshuffle to institute the performance criterion is welcome. While the message is mixed for Suresh Prabhu, who has been divested of the railways but shifted to commerce and industry, the dropping of ministers looking after crucial portfolios like skill development, micro, small and medium enterprises and labour, and the induction of new people in their place, will be watched for the change, or lack of it, in these ministries.