Do you know Ajay Tamta of Uttarakhand or Krishna Raj of Shahjahanpur? In the list of 16 probable candidates expected to be sworn in as ministers for the Union of India on Tuesday, it would be difficult for even the most avid observers of Indian politics to recognise anyone – except maybe MJ Akbar, Vijay Goel, SS Ahluwalia and Ramdas Athavale – as public personae.
Take for example names like Faggan Singh Kulaste from Madhya Pradesh, Mahendra Nath Pandey from Uttar Pradesh, Arjun Ram Meghwal from Rajasthan, Subhash Bhamre from Maharashtra, and Mansukhbhai Mandavia from Gujarat; none of them ring a bell, or are known for their exceptional oratory skills or influence on national politics.
Yet, they figure in the list that has been doing the rounds in Delhi since Monday morning. The speculation about their induction is based on the assumption that all of them met BJP president Amit Shah on Monday, to convey their gratitude.
There is little doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi rarely goes by the personal charisma of a leader within the BJP. For him, the cabinet reshuffle is more of an administrative exercise than to uplift his government’s image.
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 would invariable bear 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 January 2017.
Anupriya Patel, from Mirzapur constituency, has been roped in to counter the impact of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who of late has been touring across UP to wean away a sizeable chunk of Kurmi votes. Anupriya’s own party – the Apna Dal – has exclusively cultivated Kurmis as its support base for the past two decades.
Anupriya’s entry into the cabinet is expected to effectively neutralize the possibility of Nitish Kumar taking away a formidable section of the Kurmi votes. At the same time, the move 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 Patel would come across as a strong woman OBC leader, with a modern outlook.
Similarly, Mahendra Pandey of Chandauli – home district of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh – is expected to be given a place in the council of ministers. Pandey again, is a young Brahmin face who has been quite active in the prime minister’s constituency in Varanasi. Though a political featherweight, Pandey has been cultivated as a Brahmin leader who can replace an old warhorse like Kalraj Mishra – currently Union Cabinet Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.
The possible induction of Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (RPI) from Maharashtra, and Krishna Raj of Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, along with several other names of similar merit is symbolic.
Given the fact that the BSP supremo, Mayawati, commands an unwavering loyalty of 22 percent of Dalits 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.
By all indications, the cabinet reshuffle and expansion on Tuesday is going to be a project of 'social engineering' – undertaken by the BJP in view of the upcoming 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and to balance caste equations elsewhere.
But apart from this political objective, the exercise is also aimed at correcting the administrative imbalances. For instance, the parliamentary affairs were grossly mismanaged in the Modi government. SS Ahluwalia and MJ Akbar are believed to have been brought in to engage with different political groups, and to leverage their access in different parties for the government’s favour.
Similarly, Vijay Goel seems to be back in the reckoning as he is valued as an ‘efficient colleague', much against the wishes of many senior leaders in the government. Similarly, Parshottam Rupala, a strong Leuva Patel leader from Gujarat, is tipped to have been taken in the cabinet because of his expertise in the agriculture sector. The performance of the agriculture ministry is rated below par within the government.
Apart from these administrative reasons, the cabinet reshuffle is likely to have less substance and much sound, for whatever its worth.