Tuesday's Union Cabinet reshuffle — or 'expansion' as Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to call it — threw up many clues for the poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. Election analysts and poll pundits have already called the latest change in Modi's Council of Ministers an act of balancing caste and regional equations. Tuesday's expansion of the Union Cabinet is being touted as Modi's biggest political moves since he acquired the top office since May 2014.
While there have been Cabinet rejigs on four occasions since May 2014, the reshuffle is arguably the first-of-its-kind and that it comes ahead of major electoral tests for the ruling party at the Centre, is significant. Tuesday's cabinet expansion and reshuffle bore the stamp of social engineering to accommodate disparate social groups — like the Dalits, Kurmis etc — particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, states that are poll-bound in 2017.
Prakash Javadekar was promoted to a Cabinet rank and given, what many argue, the high-profile Human Resource Development ministry. Seventeen of the new ministers are from the BJP: SS Ahluwalia, Faggan Singh Kulaste, Arjun Ram Meghwal, Vijay Goel, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi, Rajen Gohain, Anil Madhav Dave, Parshottam Rupala, M J Akbar, Jasvantsinh Bhabhor, Mahendra Nath Pandey, Ajay Tamta, Krishna Raj, Mansukh Mandaviya, CR Chaudhary, PP Chaudhary and Subhash Bhamre. The other two are from other NDA allies — Anupriya Singh Patel of Apna Dal and Ramdas Athawale, an RPI leader.
The choices for the new Cabinet are a clear indicator of what the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo are trying to achieve in the upcoming elections. PM Modi has inducted five leaders — Athawale (Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra), Raj (Shajahanpur, UP), Meghwal (Bikaner, Rajasthan), Jigajinagi (Bijapur, Karnataka) and Tamta (Almora, Uttarakhand) — who belong to the Scheduled Caste community, three from Scheduled Tribes and two from OBC community. It is evident that BJP leadership is trying to tap on the non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs in the state to extend its support base. Interestingly, BJP chief Amit Shah had earlier declared that ruling Samajwadi Party is BJP's main political rival in Uttar Pradesh.
The Dalit scenario
According to the Union census 2011,Uttar Pradesh stands first with 20.5 percent of the total scheduled caste (SC) population, followed by West Bengal with 10.7 percent. It is Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which usually banks on this 20 percent Dalit vote but it will not be able to form a government unless it draws support from other groups, including the OBCs, Muslims and the upper castes. Any gains among Scheduled Castes will help the BJP inch closer to its target of winning 265 of the 403 Assembly seats in the state.
This is where the newly-inducted Anupriya Patel comes in. A first-time MP from Mirzapur constituency, eloquent and a pro-Modi voice within and outside the Lok Sabha, whose OBC roots have positioned her as an important BJP ally in Uttar Pradesh, Anupriya could turn the tables for BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The support of BJP, Patel's associates say, can help her claim the legacy of her father who built Apna Dal's base among OBCs, primarily his fellow castemen Kurmis. Her inclusion in the Union Council of Ministers is apparently aimed at consolidating backward votes in poll bound UP, especially eastern parts of the state where another tall Kurmi leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been trying to make a foray ahead of the 2017 Assembly polls. Nitish Kumar has addressed a number of rallies in Uttar Pradesh recently.
Anupriya was earlier an MLA from Rohaniya constituency in Varanasi. BJP's plans to project Anupriya as a prominent backward face had become clear with its national President Amit Shah attending the 67th birth anniversary of Sonelal Patel which was observed recently as 'jan swabhiman rally' in Varanasi.
At the same time, Anupriya's induction is also intended to balance the caste equation, following the induction of another powerful Kurmi leader, Beni Prasad Verma, into the Samajwadi Party. Compared to "an old and irrelevant Verma," a young and articulate Anupriya would come across as a strong woman OBC leader, with a modern outlook.
The induction of two other leaders — RPI's Athawale and Raj of Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh — is symbolic. Given the fact that Mayawati commands an unwavering loyalty of the Dalit population in the state, the BJP has been making desperate overtures to reach out to marginal communities through this symbolism. Athawale can be used to burnish the pro-Dalit credentials of the BJP, which is largely considered as a party representing the interests of dominant castes, particularly the upper castes, argues executive editor of Firstpost, Ajay Singh in this piece.
The only high-profile shift in Tuesday's reshuffle was probably former Union HRD minister Smriti Irani's move to the lesser-known textile ministry. 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.
In the scheme of things, the controversies over Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide and Irani's handling of the incident was always going to be held against her. The controversies around Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) would have caught up in no time too. 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.
It is a political masterstroke by Narendra Modi. While Modi and Amit Shah will lead the charge in Uttar Pradesh and other poll-bound states in 2017, this cavalry of selected talent, who were included after an exhaustive vetting and selection process, will follow to prove all the detractors right - that the Tuesday's Cabinet expansion/reshuffle/rejig was aimed at poll benefits.
But what if all this vetting and selection goes waste?
Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election in 2017 is the next big thing for BJP. Party spirits are definitely buyont with their outstanding performance in Assembly elections in five states — Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry — but the stinging loss that the party faced in Bihar is also still fresh in the memory of the party leadership.
A win in Uttar Pradesh will probably immortalise Modi and Shah in the political history of the country. It will demonstrate that instead of resting on their laurels, the party is learning from its Bihar debacle. Post-election analysis showed that the Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and the Congress mapped social and caste factors more effectively in their selection of candidates for the 243 Assembly seats in Bihar. The BJP tied up with regional players with backward caste support like Jitan Ram Manjhi to supplement its traditional upper caste vote-base, but polled 10 lakh fewer votes than in 2010.
While the Grand Alliance, as expected, consolidated the Yadav, Muslim and Kurmi votes with the coming together of Lalu and Nitish, the BJP was surprised that its regional partners Hindustani Awam Morcha, Lok Janshakti Party and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party could not manage to hold their respective traditional vote bases among the backward castes, who had voted for the NDA en mass only last year in the national election.
However, BJP is a national party and it remains to be seen how far it goes if the party continues to drop and pick ministers apparently for political gains.