Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold move on Tuesday, hours after a sedate and unremarkable ministerial expansion in the morning, has sent out some riveting political signals. Smriti Irani’s exit from the crucial HRD ministry, the centrepiece of the evening exercise, is extremely welcome. Over the last two years, Minister Irani, who sought to paint herself larger than her ministry, presided over growing unease on university campuses, alienated distinguished stakeholders in the education system with her abrasive style of functioning and contributed to worsening almost every crisis she inherited in the higher education sector — be it the politicisation of appointments, cramping of institutional autonomy or the privileging of ideology over pedagogy. By removing her from a high-profile ministry and handing her a relatively lightweight portfolio, textiles, PM Modi may well be conveying his disapproval of her performance. At the very least, he has delivered a stern warning against relentless headline-hunting by ministers with important responsibilities.
Irani’s insensitive handling of the furore over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student on the HCU campus, will haunt her party and government for some time to come. As the controversy escalated with the eruption of a deeper discontent against caste discrimination on campus and protests against the ABVP’s increased muscle-flexing with the support of a friendly government, she was the minister who preferred theatrical confrontation over any attempt to calm troubled waters. When JNU became the next site of student unrest following the government’s heavyhanded efforts to criminalise some slogan-shouting students by slapping cases of sedition on them, she remained implacable — a part of the problem, again, not the solution. Having removed her, however, and with Prakash Javadekar in her place, the onus of calming the unease on campus, as also of resetting the policy focus in school and higher education will lie much more on the PM himself. Javadekar does not have a greatly inspiring record as environment minister — he is accused, in fact, of leaning excessively in favour of environmental clearance rather than protection — but he is seen as more biddable than Irani. In other words, the PM will find it more difficult to distance himself from the incompetence or failure of a Javadekar-headed HRD ministry, even as he may find it easier to put his impress on its achievements.
The change in the HRD ministry has drawn the most attention because it is crucial to the shaping of the future of a country of the young and also because it is crying out for more reform, less state control. But Tuesday’s exercise was also interesting for smaller moves like the intriguing choice of Subhash Ramrao Bhamre, a cancer specialist sworn in as MoS defence. Or the more explicable induction of M.J. Akbar as MoS external affairs. Overall, ahead of his government touching the halfway mark, the PM has stirred things up, and hit the refresh button.