Updated: July 9, 2021 8:16:46 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a penchant for the big move, for disruption as a statement of his politics and political style. From the suddenness of demonetisation in November 2016 to the shock abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, he has courted the image of the grand change-maker who gives no quarter, and no warnings. But if those changes and shocks were administered to the polity and the system, on Wednesday the PM struck within. A little short of the halfway mark of his government’s second term, after the battering taken by his party due to its defeat in West Bengal and by his government because of its visible failures in tackling the pandemic’s second wave, with a slew of important assembly elections round the corner, especially in Uttar Pradesh, he reconstituted his council of ministers in a way that went dramatically beyond the conventional reshuffle or expansion. It was an overhaul, a purge and a remake. It could be said that the big-ness was the message.
But given the fact that it is directed within the party and government, not without, and given its timing, this move lends itself to other readings. The removal, most prominently, of the Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, could be seen as an admission that the battle against the virus has not gone well so far and the government needs to correct course under a new leader. Of course, in a government that functions in strikingly centralised ways, the PMO has been more in charge of the anti-Covid fight than the health ministry, and Harsh Vardhan’s exit may be a passing of accountability as much as owning it. Even so, the change of health minister is an acknowledgement of the need for some kind of a reset. The reasons for changes in other crucial ministries, however — six Cabinet ministers have been shown the door — are less clear. It is unclear, too, why crucial portfolios have been entrusted to those whose non-political backgrounds are seen as their USP.
The Modi government will need to show that the PM did not remake his council of ministers simply because he could. That the sweeping ministerial makeover means that it is more agile in stepping up to the work that remains to be done. The change in leadership in critical sectors yet to emerge out of Covid’s shadow bodes both a recognition of the challenge and the promise of improved performance. In the health ministry, this means ramping up the vaccination programme. It means conducting a more productive conversation with Big Tech for the IT ministry and a relooking at the new IT rules, and for the education ministry, taking quicker steps to bridge the digital divide while implementing the NEP. The law ministry will have to moderate the appearance of a building face-off between the executive and the courts. And, overall, the challenges of an economy bruised by the pandemic must be met while at the same time reaching out across the aisle to lower the temperature on a range of issues. The task is cut out — and so is the big new team.
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