Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team for his second term is ready and there are some unmistakable and unmissable signals. Amit Shah, Home Minister, makes an important statement about the new government. As party president, Shah has not just been credited with toning up the BJP’s organisational muscle, but also with delineating in sharper and unarguably harsher ways, its ideological agenda. This was mirrored in the party’s renewed insistence and stridency, in the just concluded campaign, on some critical issues.
The Shah-led BJP, and Shah himself, have promised that the process to update the National Register of Citizens, which has caused turmoil and is yet inconclusive in Assam, will be extended to the rest of the country. Under Shah, the BJP, during the election campaign, weaponised the NRC to press home some ideological points — more than seven decades after Independence, the onus is on citizens to prove their Indianness, and (Muslim) illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are to be seen, in Shah’s words, as “termites” even as proposed amendments to the Citizenship Bill paved the way for non-Muslim minorities to citizenship. Shah has helped inject a similarly unforgiving lexicon on the Kashmir issue — in election rallies, he promised, or threatened, to scrap the special status to J&K under Article 370 of India’s Constitution if the BJP is re-elected. On “national security” in general, catapulted by the BJP into the highest priority issue in this Lok Sabha campaign, Shah led from the front, accusing political opponents of patronising Naxals, and drawing associations between student protests in JNU, surgical strikes in the wake of Uri and India’s attack on terror camps in Balakot. As home minister now, at the very least, the home ministry will be more pro-active. It could, in fact, become the hub for efforts to lend government imprimatur to the BJP’s controversial ideological positions on critical issues, redrawing the battlelines. How party president Shah works with Home Minister Shah will be watched in a government that has promised to win sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust).
If Shah deals in battlelines, Nirmala Sitharaman continues to break glass ceilings — she was India’s first full-time woman defence minister, she is its first woman finance minister in decades (since Indira Gandhi, as PM, held the portfolio). Her shift to the finance ministry carries forward her breathtaking rise and also points to the absences she steps into — her elevation is so startling only because there are so few women in the nation’s top jobs. She comes to the office in challenging times — she will need to find ways of reviving growth amid a general stasis or slowdown, from employment to investment to jobs and exports. And last, but certainly not least, the allocation of the important External Affairs portfolio to lateral entrant S Jaishankar promises to burnish the second Modi government’s engagement with the world, especially the big powers. Ground level campaign reports suggest that foreign policy as photo-op was widely popularised in the first Modi regime. Now, with Jaishankar on board, it gets more strategic depth.