Going by the intense media speculation, it would seem that prime minister's impending Cabinet reshuffle is an event of deep import with far-reaching consequences. We are told that in one fell swoop, Narendra Modi in consultation with party president Amit Shah will remove ministerial deadwood and breathe fresh life into his Cabinet while simultaneously reaching out to OBCs, Dalits and sounding the poll bugle ahead of crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.
Beyond an administrative restructuring and filling up of posts that have fallen empty, the Cabinet rejig is unlikely to be an earth-shaking event. The reason is simple. Whether or not the council of ministers is juggled around, this was, is and shall remain exclusively a 'Narendra Modi government'. And consequently, the PM's performance or the perception and discourse around his performance would solely decide the fate of his government at the electoral hustings.
Under the Westminster model of Parliamentary democracy, though the prime minister is the head of government and leader of the council of ministers, examples abound in India's 69-year-old journey as an independent nation of PMs who were malleable, effete and overshadowed by either their ministerial colleagues or even party presidents who wielded real power behind the scenes.
Not so Modi. The manner of his rise from Gujarat to 7 Race Course Road in Delhi is noteworthy. The BJP saw in him its best chance to regain power after a 10-year UPA rule and subsequently, perhaps acting on poll strategist Prashant Kishor's suggestion, the party receded into the background during the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He was announced as the prime ministerial aspirant and if there was an internal consternation over it, those obstacles were duly removed. Modi became a larger-than-life figure overshadowing all peers past and present.
While running for the top post, Modi brought a taste of US Presidential style of campaigning in India. From technology-aided 'chai-pe-charcha' campaigns to simultaneous rallies through a 3D life-size hologram at over 4,000 events across the country to running a hugely influential 'achhe din' campaign on TV, it was Modi all the way. His charisma as an able, strong administrator and 'development agent' overshadowed everything else.
The campaign strategy was based on a calculation that the middle class and the young voters would be attracted to Modi's image as a 'doer' and his promise of 'development for all' would influence even the 'swing voters' who have been traditionally uncomfortable with BJP's policies. His image as someone who is incorruptible and disinterested in propagating his own family, it was thought, would add to the allure for an electorate who were tired to the bone with corruption and Gandhi dynasty antics.
Bloomberg, in a 2013 report, quoted a 21-year-old man from a Modi rally in Bangalore as saying: “India has economic problems and only Modi can solve them… He will create jobs and boost growth. He will stop the rupee from sliding.” Gowda, said the report, was a factory worker in a Modi T-shirt who will vote for the first time in elections due in May 2014. He had listened to the hour-long Modi speech in a hot midday sun.
Three years and halfway into his tenure as a prime minister, there has been absolutely no change in Modi's image. He still remains the man firmly in charge of his party and unlike his predecessor Manmohan Singh, he runs the PMO with absolute control. And both he and his party still continue to project his image as a decisive and firm administrator.
When Modi, during the much-publicised Times Now interview, was asked if his government was serious about bringing home wilful defaulters and taking action against economic offenders who use their money power to stay clear of the arm of law, the prime minister's reply was telling.
"Firstly, this question is not in the minds of people. The people of India have confidence that if there's someone who can do this, it is Narendra Modi and he will do it. Citizens of the country have full faith…
"I take this as an opportunity and I will show them what the law is," he said when asked if people are misusing the law.
Here, more than anywhere else, is an assertion by the PM that the electorate still looks to him for solution, not his Cabinet colleagues. It is too obvious a point to be made that Modi alone cannot be the government. But unlike many of his predecessors, Modi is given to micromanaging day-to-day administration, sometimes spending hours with officials and technocrats to thrash out a solution instead of setting a broad policy agenda and hiring the right people to execute it.
There could be debates about whether or not Modi's approach is the right one, but the point is he relegates his ministerial colleagues to almost non-significance. The Cabinet reshuffle, therefore, is likely to be only of academic importance when it comes to assessing the Modi government's performance.