Narendra Modi’s real shocker is demotion of Jayant Sinha, not Smriti Irani - Firstpost
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Narendra Modi’s real shocker is demotion of Jayant Sinha, not Smriti Irani

It was speculated. Now it's clear.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi nurtures deep animosity towards the media. Nothing else explains why the prime minister chose to drop a bombshell so late into the night when most star anchors were busy negotiating homeward traffic and print media had almost sorted out its first page.

The cars had to be reversed and Page 1 had to be redrawn because on Tuesday, Modi gave the words 'Cabinet reshuffle' an entirely new meaning by announcing sweeping changes that were simultaneously a strong statement of intent to peers and an unmistakable message to the electorate at large that he means business.

It was not so much a Cabinet 'reshuffle' as a thorough dismantling of his council of ministers and a total overhaul of far reaching proportions the impact of which will be discussed for a long time to come.

Though the focus, for obvious reasons, will be on the shifting of Smriti Irani from the high profile Union HRD ministry to the relatively low-key textiles, in reality, the transfer of minister of state Jayant Sinha from finance to civil aviation is a bigger shock and a more inexplicable move, considering the fact that the Harvard-educated former venture capitalist was a natural fit in his portfolio and was largely thought to have carried out his responsibilities with some degree of competence.

Former minister of state for finance Jayant Sinha. Image courtesy CNN-IBN

Former minister of state for finance Jayant Sinha. Image courtesy CNN-News18

Let's face it, the Irani move was hardly an unexpected one.

The BJP is in the midst of a massive outreach towards the Dalits ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. The party has lined up Modi and Amit Shah to address a series of rallies apart from a sequence of other Dalit-centric events. IIT-trained professionals have been roped in to assess the impact of the exercise. As part of the same outreach, Modi on Tuesday inducted Ramdas Athawale, a prominent Dalit leader from Maharashtra, into his Cabinet as the BJP sought to send a message of inclusion to the politically crucial segment ahead of elections to five states.

In the scheme of things, the controversy over Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide and Irani's handling of the incident was always going to be held against her. As long she was at the helm of a politically sensitive HRD ministry, the BJP would find it difficult to win the perception game. The prime minister would have to be really daft not to recognise the problem. Far from it being a surprise, shifting her was perhaps the most obvious move.

Irani is a feisty leader, never one to shy away from a fight. Her pugnaciousness could be better utilised in the rough and tumble of electoral politics and there is a possibility that Modi simply made a tactical move by giving her a less important portfolio so that she can be left free to take charge of the BJP campaign in the UP Assembly polls.

Sinha's shifting, however, is intriguing. There is speculation — not entirely idle — that the Hazaribagh MP was made to pay for his father's outspokenness. Yashwant Sinha, cast by BJP's GenNext into the orbit of obscurity, has been a virulent critic of the Modi government since almost its inception. Most recently, Sinha Sr has castigated the prime minister for taking a special interest in getting NSG membership for India, saying the country stands to lose and not gain by becoming a member, and alleging that people sitting in the government were misguiding it every day.

But the theory doesn't hold water for a very simple reason. If his father's garrulousness was a problem, Jayant Sinha would never have been appointed as a minister in the first place.

Strangely, however, Sinha has been shifted out of finance at a time when he was spearheading some crucial reforms in the banking sector. The Indradhanush plan, for instance, is a seven-pronged scheme launched last year to revamp functioning of PSU banks that include appointments, board of bureau, capitalisation, de-stressing, empowerment, framework of accountability and governance reforms.

Sinha was also the brain behind India's first Rs 40,000-crore sovereign wealth National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) and was in the process of choosing the CEO. During a recently-held Advancing Asia conference in the capital, Sinha revealed that he has received "82 very high quality CVs (for the post of NIIF CEO)" which will be shortlisted to about 8-10 people. "We will be shortly calling them for interview and we hope to whole process complete within next few weeks," he had said.

With the global market in a turmoil over Brexit and domestic economy still struggling to find its feet, it seems a bizarre time to shunt out a man who holds an MBA with Distinction from the Harvard Business School, an MS in Energy Management and Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Bachelor of Technology degree with Distinction from IIT, Delhi.

One uncharitable explanation holds that Modi government is not unduly impressed with Ivy League policy wonks and their ability to impact the Indian economy, going by the way RBI governor failed to find favour for an extension of his term. But Sinha has hardly put a foot wrong and never ventured beyond his brief, even criticising the RBI governor for his 'one-eyed king' comment.

It should equally be pointed out, however, that with a freshly minted new civil aviation policy on the table, perhaps the government needed somebody more energetic than Mahesh Sharma to guide a much-needed revamp of the sector that just a few days ago became open to 100 percent FDI without any caveats except a government nod after the foreign investment limit crossed 49 percent. And not to speak of piecing together the Air India jigsaw — one puzzle that has so far eluded a solution.

Having said that, purely in terms of core competence though, Sinha's transfer doesn't make sense.

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