What initially looked like an exercise to align the caste equations and political priorities in the government ahead of the state polls took the shape of a major cabinet reshuffle within hours during the course of Tuesday.
That surprised political pundits and gave plenty of room for speculations and theories that included a ‘demoted’ Smriti Irani likely taking up the assignment as Uttar Pradesh chief ministerial candidate.
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah, who are believed to have conducted the match-making exercise, deserve kudos for the late evening (pleasant) surprise after a boring afternoon.
The common pattern shows that ‘Pleasing-the-boss Abhiyan’ hasn’t really worked for Modi’s ministers but what mattered was work. Those who did well have been rewarded while laggards and trouble-makers have been pushed aside.
Piyush Goyal now has more ‘power’ with additional charge of mines, HRD has Prakash Javadekar, who is perhaps better placed to head the critical ministry than his predecessor who arguably focused more on the extracurricular than the curricular.
Javadekar, who has done commendable work in the environmental ministry helping Modi to fast-track project implementation by cutting the green-tape, has got a deserving double promotion. Similarly, journalist-turned politician M J Akbar’s elevation to ministry of external affairs makes sense given his understanding of issues and his articulation.
Among the non-performers, Sadananda Gowda, has been demoted, so to say, twice in the Modi-ministry — from Railways to Law and now from Law to Statistics and Programme Implementation. Five others, too, were dropped. There have been some political adjustments, with a heavy representation for poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.
To cut the long story short, Tuesday’s cabinet reshuffle was largely on the lines of a performance appraisal by a corporate CEO and also taking care of some housekeeping issues. Those who analyzed the first round of news as largely cosmetic changes had to rework the edit lines later.
As far as the new 19 faces are concerned, there aren’t any prominent figures with a proven track record, maybe with the exception of Akbar. The rest largely looked like more caste and domicile quota entries. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Most of them are unknown, so we don’t know if some of them can surprise us. That’s only a chance, yes, but largely, even his political opponents would agree that Modi has done a few right things at the right time. Maybe with the exception of the Finance Ministry.
At a time when the world economy is going through a tailspin, and the Finance Ministry would have needed more, not less, technical heft, it is surprising that Jayant Sinha, an accomplished technocrat, has been sent to the Civil Aviation Ministry. Sinha is someone who has a grasp of the subject and has done a good job as Jaitley’s junior. Only time will tell if Jaitley’s two new deputies — Santosh Kumar Gangwar and Arjun Ram Meghwal — can step up to the plate at a time when the Ministry is facing stiff challenges in multiple fronts.
First, the banking sector’s bad loans problem and recapitalisation issues have reached criticality. With about 11.5 percent stressed assets (both bad loans and restructured loans), banks are facing a sort of a crisis. More sticky assets are likely to come from the restructured loan segment if the economy doesn’t pick up as fast as expected.
Secondly, the world economy is passing through a tough phase and the domestic economy too is facing its spill-over effects. Had the Modi-government missed the benefit of the crash in international crude oil and commodity prices, the situation would have been far more complicated.
Third, on the divestment-front too, the government has fallen well short of the target in two financial years. The NDA-government didn’t act in the first year to push major divestment proposals when markets were riding on the Modi-wave and global conditions were a tad better than at present.
For the fiscal year, 2014-15, the disinvestment final figure stood at Rs 24,349 crore as against the target of Rs 36,925 crore. In fiscal year, 2015-2016, the government managed to raise only about Rs 32,149 crore as against the target of Rs 69,500 crore. This year (2016-2017) too, Jaitley has set an ambitious target of Rs 56,500 crore of which Rs 36,000 crore is expected to come from minority stake sale in PSUs, while the remaining Rs 20,500 crore from strategic sale in both profit and loss-making companies. But, there has been hardly any notable progress so far.
The success of Modi’s five-year term will be evaluated very closely in the context of how effectively and convincingly the PM has managed to improve the economy. That is why, if at all the Finance Ministry needed any tweaking, it was for strengthening it, giving it more muscle. As it appears now, Modi has weakened Jaitley's hands even further by moving Jayanta Sinha out. This was no time for an experiment in the North Block.