Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his own sweet time to expand-cum-reshuffle his Council of Ministers, and when he did, he ensured that it sent across a loud and clear message for all concerned – about his persona, his work style, and his government.
The need for a Cabinet reshuffle was felt and was intensely talked about since the Bihar election results – where the BJP did not fair well – and on many other occasions thereafter. But back then, he was still assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his ministers, and the BJP MPs.
The magnitude of the whole exercise was effective in three parts – induction of 19 new ministers, securing the resignations of six ministers, and announcing the reshuffle affecting the fortunes of nine pre-existing Cabinet ministers and 13 Ministers of state, including some with independent charges.
The exercise clearly indicated that after being in office for two years, Modi now knows the pulse of each individual member of his party, and the government. Few ministers may have survived the axe, but that could be attributed to the compulsions of running a large party.
It is evident that Modi wants to speed up the executive action of his government, even if not to his desired level, but certainly to a level where the delivery of goods and services are tangibly visible on the ground, like those in the infrastructure sector – highways, shipping, power and rail.
The other thing that has gone largely unnoticed is that Modi is no longer willing to take the parliamentary logjam, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, as fait accompli. During the latest round of biennial elections in the Upper House, the BJP secured at least three more seats than it would have otherwise got, if it had not aggressively pitched its stake, punching higher than its weight. That was a confrontationist politics.
But then elections are always about raising an aggressive pitch. That part is over now. Through this expansion-cum-reshuffle the prime minister has sent out a message that he is now inclined to open up a dialogue with the opposition parties and seek consensus as far as possible. That inclination will be tested soon, when the Parliament opens for the Monsoon session on 18 July.
There was a great deal of private talk within party circles about an unending confrontationist pitch by Parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu. While in some sessions, the Parliament sat for a longer time than usual and passed a record number of bills, other sessions saw a total or virtual washout.
There was also a feeling that even if the Congress was not inclined to budge from its obstructionist attitude, the Government did not do enough to reach out to other parties in a manner that it should have. By divesting Naidu of Parliamentary affairs – and giving him additional charge of Information and Broadcasting ministry, besides urban affairs – and by giving responsibility of Parliamentary affairs to Chemicals and Fertiliser minister Ananth Kumar, the Prime Minister has clearly indicated his preferences. This also means that Ananth Kumar's personal rating as a minister has gone up.
That SS Ahluwalia has been inducted as the Minister of State, and has been assigned parliamentary affairs, is very significant in this regard. Ahluwalia is a walking Encyclopedia on parliamentary affairs – he had a long stint in Congress, and knows that party inside out and had been very active when he was the deputy leader of BJP in Rajya Sabha. He is a smooth negotiator and could, at the least, keep the opposition engaged when the situation so arises; other than helping break a deadlock.
Since these changes have been made about three weeks ahead of tabling the GST bill in Parliament, this reflects a change not just in tactic but also in the attitude of the government; something which explains the change in the portfolio of HRD minister Smriti Irani, and the lightening of VK Singh's assignment.
A widely circulated message on social media, reflecting on Irani's transfer to the textile ministry said, "Aaj phir ek beti ke haath se kitab chin kar silai machine thama di gaye hai." Irani's own take on why she was shifted from the HRD to textile was, "kuch toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kahna."
Besides Irani and Javadekar, other key news makers were Sadananda Gowda, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Vijay Goel, Manoj Sinha, Jayant Sinha and SS Ahluwalia.
It was a clear demotion for Gowda. The prime minister has clearly not been happy with him, and thus Gowda has been shunted to a relatively insignificant ministry of statistics and programme implementation.
Ravi Shankar Prasad's shift from the ministry of communications and IT to the law ministry can be viewed from three different angles – he was required in the Law ministry, a portfolio he had earlier held, particularly when the government's judiciary engagements need a better balance. Second, despite bringing BSNL in profit and other such achievements, he couldn't correct one principal complaint against his ministry, call drops. Third, he was tightening the industry on the call drop issues and some others matters so hard that there was a general unhappiness in the industry around him.
The government wants a greater and rapid expansion in the sector, but a rough positioning between the minister and the industry was not a very happy situation to achieve this end.
Vijay Goel has made a comeback, after being slighted. From being the face of BJP in Delhi, he was made the Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan, but he slowly won the confidence of the PM and got independent charge of the youth and sports affairs ministry. He joins at a time when India would be hoping for a large medal tally in the upcoming Rio Olympics.
That an unassuming Manoj Sinha has been given the charge of a high profile and highly visible telecommunications ministry is indicative of the kind of trust Modi and Amit Shah have in him. A former IIT-BHU alumni and the university union president, Sinha in 2014 was pushed to fight parliamentary elections and was subsequently made the Minister of state for Railways.
An affectionate pat on his shoulder by Modi, at Allahabad a fortnight ago, was taken as an indication of the PM's liking for him. Jayant Sinha's shift from finance to Minister of state for civil aviation can be explained only in terms of his father, Yashwant Sinha's, current standing in the BJP.