Beyond the feverish media speculation over who was promoted or demoted following the Cabinet reshuffle, whose stock rose or fell, one point emerges loud and clear. Two and a half years into power at the Centre, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah's clout has grown to the point that they now hold absolute sway over the functioning of the government and the party and no one, not even the party's ideological mentors, can arm twist the duo into making a decision.
The principle that guided Modi as he initiated sweeping changes of portfolios seems to be a straightforward one: perform, or perish. And the Prime Minister's ruthlessness in implementing this mantra during the Cabinet overhaul suggests that he finds nobody as indispensable. No reputation is big enough and no proximity is close enough if one has been found wanting in performance.
Tuesday's expansion also puts to rest conjectures that the PM is a weaker personality than previously assumed and restores much of Modi's mojo as a strong-willed, decisive, dynamic leader who places results and merit above all other metrics and commands unswerving obedience from colleagues.
It could point to media's fickleness but to understand how Modi triggered a sudden change in perception, a small digression is in order. During an interaction with a few journalists on Tuesday ahead of the cabinet expansion, Modi made an observation that his biggest challenge remains winning over critics and sceptics who could never fully reconcile with the idea of him as India's Prime Minister.
"Before and during the parliamentary elections, there was a section of the media which strongly hoped that we would not win. My regret is that in the last two years, I have not been able to convince or persuade that section regarding our point of view. My challenge is to win over these sceptics, and persuade them of our sincerity and good intentions," the Prime Minister was quoted, as saying by Indian Express while answering a question on his regrets after two years at helm.
As it happens, he didn't have to wait too long. Following the Cabinet rejig, Modi received grudging praise from a few of his consistently trenchant critics.
Abusing `secular' journalists considered a surefire way to gain Modiji's approval but now @PMOIndia signals performance matters too!
— Sagarika Ghose (@sagarikaghose) July 6, 2016
He's been tweeting most furiously in praise of PM all these months. Good, mere chamchagiri doesn't work in Modi-Raj https://t.co/nTMcLCqDlB
— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) July 5, 2016
Or consider this paragraph from The Telegraph, which has found in Modi little to praise for in the past. "It (the portfolio shuffle) carried a single, hard-hitting message: mid-way through the NDA government's tenure, under-performance will not be countenanced, much less unbridled ambitions, notions of grandeur and delusions of "proximity" to the ruling brass and the RSS. Delivery on target would be rewarded conservatively.
The latest reshuffle also makes nonsense of idle speculations that BJP's enfant terrible MP Subramanian Swamy is the 'third-most' important person in terms of pecking order in the current dispensation, as historian and political commentator Mukul Kesavan recently suggested in an op-ed piece for The Telegraph: "It is clear now (or it ought to be) that this English-speaking extremist is the Anglophone face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. When Swamy joined the BJP in 2013, the media treated him as a kind of court jester, licensed to say outrageous things but not a real force in the new dispensation. It's an assessment that is being rapidly revised; on the evidence of Rajan's termination, Swamy is the party's most influential voice after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah."
If issuing consistently provocative statements and seeking publicity through media-based character assassinations were a surefire way to curry favour with the Prime Minister, then Swamy would've been sitting pretty with a Cabinet berth right now.
Not that he didn't try — by making finance minister Arun Jaitley the target of his thinly disguised attacks, labeling allegations against technocrats close to the FM or raising doubts about India's GDP figures — Swamy ran a guerilla campaign to get himself installed at North Block. His being cast in the cold, therefore, shows that Modi meant every word that he uttered during the Times Now interview, "people should conduct themselves with utmost responsibility. If anybody considers himself above the system, it is wrong.."
The spectacular nature of the changes, which left untouched very few ministers such as Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu, are indicative of a hard-boiled assessment preceding the exercise.
There have been reports of PM presiding over "an over four-hour-long meeting of the Council of Ministers" last week where he "reviewed the performance of all Union ministries to ascertain whether budgetary allocations have been spent wisely."
In his penchant for micro-managing minute details of administration, Modi has an unusual technocrat's approach towards his role as a Prime Minister. That came to the fore again in the way the portfolio changes were brought about. Power-point presentations by 100 top bureaucrats running into over 100 slides and threadbare analysis of how each department had fared against the budgetary and sundry allocations since 2014 are touches of professionalism the executive arm of the government badly needs.
From promoting Prakash Javadekar and handing him the HRD ministry; shifting Smriti Irani to textiles; divesting Arun Jaitley of the I&B portfolio and giving it to Venkaiah Naidu; stripping Sadanand Gowda of law and returning the portfolio to Ravi Shankar Prasad; trusting an extremely low-key minister such as MoS, railways, Manoj Sinha with independent charge of telecommunications, there is cold calculation at work here. MoS Jayant Sinha losing the finance ministry and getting civil aviation instead is perhaps the only move that has resisted easy analysis (dealt at length in an earlier piece for Firstpost here).
The biggest takeaway from an apparently complex exercise is simple. Ministers should keep their heads down and work. There shall be no rewards for picking fights or grandstanding, much less for claiming favouritism where there is none. And put your trust in Modi.