Modi’s cabinet is now bigger but will it be better? - GulfToday

Modi’s cabinet is now bigger but will it be better?

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week dropped 12 members of his Council of Ministers, including seven of Cabinet rank, promoted seven Ministers of State to Cabinet rank and added 36 new members.

Media reports quoted government sources as saying the exercise had two objectives. One was to weed out poor performers and reward good performers. The other was to gain the support of regional and caste groups in states where Assembly elections are due next year.

The Cabinet reshuffle came after Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh, ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, visited New Delhi with his chief aides to convey his concern over the Modi regime’s declining popularity and the party’s failure to extend its footprints in the recent Assembly elections in the east and the south.

He also discussed with BJP leaders plans for next year’s Assembly elections. Uttar Pradesh is among the five states figuring in the 2022 poll calendar.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, Law and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Environment and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar were the Cabinet members who were shown the door.

The Central government was caught napping when the second COVID wave came lashing. There was acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, vaccines etc at the time. Harsh Vardhan paid the price for the government’s unpreparedness to meet the situation.

Gangwar was penalised for the humanitarian crisis precipitated by the closure of factories in the wake of the COVID lockdown. Migrant workers suddenly found themselves stranded in the cities without jobs.

Images of workers and their family members walking stoically to distant village homes flashed on television screens across the world, giving the government a bad name.  

That there were failures on the COVID front is not in doubt. But penalisation of Hash Vardhan and Gangwar for them appears to be unjust. For, neither of them had a major role in decision-making at the relevant time.

Initially, issues related to the pandemic were handled by the state governments, invoking powers vested in them under the Epidemic Diseases Act. Later the Centre stepped in and declared the outbreak of the disease a “notified disaster” under the National Disaster Management Act.

Thereafter the Prime Minister personally led the anti-COVID operations. He ordered a nationwide lockdown at four hours’ notice.

He raised a huge fund for COVID-related expenses. It was kept outside the government by creating a trust, with himself as the chairman, to manage it.

The Supreme Court found nothing wrong in parking the fund outside the government and barring the Comptroller and Auditor General, the constitutional authority mandated to scrutinise governmental expenditure, from looking into the trust’s accounts.

Modi also directly dealt with matters relating to purchase and distribution of COVID vaccines. All this diminished the role of the Union Health Minister in the management of the COVID crisis.

Subsequently the Prime Minister again let the Union Health Ministry and the state governments handle many COVID-related matters. However, many decisions still emerge from the Prime Minister’s office (PMO).

Gangwar was in no way responsible for the plight of migrant workers which resulted from the lockdown. It could have been averted if the government had the good sense to delay suspension of rail and road traffic by one or two days so that people who were away from home could get back.

Media reports were silent on why Modi sent Ramesh Pokhriyal out. Keen on saffronisation of campuses and the school curriculum, the RSS has been taking special interest in the work of the Education Ministry from the time Modi took office.

Ministers of Education were ready to act on its advice. But the RSS is not satisfied with the pace of progress in this matter.

The biggest surprise of the Cabinet changes was the exclusion of Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, who are senior BJP leaders. They were recently involved in the framing of a new set of rules under the Information Technology Act to regulate the working of Indian and foreign digital platforms. The rules drew sharp criticism from within India and abroad.

The IT rules were not the result of a Prasad-Javadekar initiative. The decision to drop them from the government may, therefore, be unconnected with that issue. Reports say they will be entrusted with party work.

The new Cabinet ministers include former Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Narayan Rane and former Congressman Jyotiraditya Scindia who defected to the BJP last year.

Anticipating a big challenge in the Assembly elections from parties that draw support from the weaker sections of society, Modi raised representation for Adivasis, Dalits, other backward classes and women in the ministry.

It now includes eight Adivasis, 12 Dalits, 27 OBCs and 11 women. Several of the new ministers are from backward regions too.

However, there are only five ministers from the religious minorities, who constitute one-fifth of the population: Buddhists 2, Sikh, Muslim, Christian one each.

The new Council of Ministers is bigger, but will it be better too? Unlikely.

Modi’s style of functioning is the root cause of many of the problems which he ostensibly sought to address through the reshuffle. Under him, the PMO has become a new power centre. Policy decisions flow from bureaucratic exercises in the PMO rather than deliberations in the Cabinet.

Modi cannot be faulted if he sees no need to change his style. After all, he could overcome its negative fallout through familiar political tactics and earn a huge following and the nation’s topmost job.

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