On the PM’s trail: Decoding the message behind Modi’s Cabinet reshuffle

Modi isn’t waiting for anyone in the BJP to breach the governance deficit that has been staring India in the face in recent months. He believes that former bureaucrats who have handled the ropes of governance for nearly 40 years of their lives can pull the government out of its present morass.

Written by Jyoti Malhotra | New Delhi | Updated: September 3, 2017 2:47:45 pm
cabinet reshuffle, cabinet reshuffle 2017, pm narendra modi, prime minister narendra modi, PM cabinet ministers, council of ministers, opinion, indian express news Cabinet reshuffle 2017: President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses with new members of cabinet after the reshuffle at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday. (PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked supremely self-confident at Rashtrapati Bhawan this morning as he brought in nine more men into his Council of Ministers, four of them former bureaucrats. The message couldn’t be clearer to his political colleagues as well as to the rest of the party. Modi isn’t waiting for anyone in the BJP to breach the governance deficit that has been staring India in the face in recent months. He believes that former bureaucrats who have handled the ropes of governance for nearly 40 years of their lives can pull the government out of its present morass.

Modi’s reliance on the bureaucracy is well-known. He replicated the model of his chief minister’s office in Gujarat when he became prime minister three years ago. Not only did he bring in his trusted aide PK Mishra from Ahmedabad and gave him the job of the additional principal secretary to PM – a most powerful position by any reckoning – he threw his newfound power behind retired bureaucrat Nripendra Mishra, by pushing through an ordinance to make him his Principal Secretary.

Hardeep Singh Puri, a former diplomat who retired as India’s permanent representative to the UN, gets independent charge of the ministry of housing and urban affairs. K J Alphons, widely known as Delhi’s ‘Demolition Man’ – and who was often found at the capital’s most interesting public spot, the India International Centre – gets independent charge of tourism. Satya Pal Singh, the former police commissioner of Mumbai is the new minister of state in the Human Resources Development and water resources ministries and RK Singh, former home secretary gets independent charge of power, energy and renewable resources (Piyush Goyal’s former ministry).

It is well-known that the all-powerful PMO runs the country and that Modi’s seniormost Cabinet colleagues have minimal access to their leader. Bringing in four ex-bureaucrats is an extension of this thought process – that they will be willing to get their hands dirty and deliver on the promises that the PM made to the country in May 2014, when he promised to usher in “Acche Din.”

The fact that the BJP is in a majority in the Lok Sabha with 282 MPs doesn’t matter to the PM. He isn’t waiting for them to learn the ropes. There simply isn’t enough time to do that with elections only two years away. These former bureaucrats, polished in the grind of the steel-frame for so many decades, will be his new lieutenants on the anvil.

So even as the Congress party congratulated the new ministers, the fact remains that the grand old party has simply not been able to challenge him on several counts over the last three years. Whether it is demonetization, which is the single most important factor in wrecking the economy, or the lynching of Muslims by cow vigilantes, the Congress seems tired and burnt up.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been in Norway, instead of Delhi, and is now travelling to the US. He has simply not been able to provide the leadership that could take advantage of the several opportunities to challenge the BJP. There was no comment from his official Twitter account @OfficeOfRG on the Cabinet reshuffle, just a message on Onam.

As for the economy, it is clear that @narendramodi is keeping faith in @arunjaitley. Despite the worst GDP indicator in the last quarter, 5.7 %, the lowest since March 2014 before the BJP came to power, Jaitley remains finance minister. (He has shed the Defence ministry, which now goes to @nsitharaman.)

So as the prime minister sets off for the BRICS summit in China tonight, he will be secure in thinking that the next two years before elections are due again, in 2019, are his for the asking.

But there is another powerful message that the Prime Minister – and his chief aide and party president, Amit Shah – are also sending out with the induction of the remaining five men. Shiv Prasad Shukla, a Rajya Sabha MP from Gorakhpur, has been a rival of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath for several years; the fact remains that Adityanath has still not joined the BJP. The PM is signalling that he is watching the man in the hot seat in Lucknow.

So apart from the fact that the Brahmins are back – like SP Shukla, Ashwini Kumar Choubey (from Buxar in Bihar) is a Brahmin face, as is Anant Hegde from Karnataka – Choubey has also been an arch-rival of Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Modi.

The PM and Amit Shah have also factored in states going to the polls over the next year. So Odisha gets Dharmendra Pradhan who has been elevated to Cabinet rank. Karnataka gets Anant Hegde, never mind he has been booked for several charges about hate speech. And Rajasthan gets Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who hails from Jodhpur, which is the home turf of Congress leader Ashok Gehlot.

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