Election win gave Narendra Modi political capital to enforce quick reforms; portfolio choices show presidential style of working

Narendra Modi's grand swearing-in as the Prime Minister of India was accompanied by two pieces of news on the economy — the first was that India's economic growth had fallen to a five-year low of under 6 percent, and that unemployment was at a multi-year high of over 6 percent; the second was that the new government will, within 100 days, deliver policies that will change India's labour laws (specifically meaning the ability of companies to easily fire workers).

The government also announced that it will acquire large plots of land that can be passed on to companies without agitations, such as the one in West Bengal's Singur against the Tatas for the establishment of a Nano plant. This is the sort of reform that would please investors, particularly foreign ones.

 Election win gave Narendra Modi political capital to enforce quick reforms; portfolio choices show presidential style of working

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the oath-taking ceremony at Rahstrapati Bahvan. Twitter@BJP4India

The advantage the Bharatiya Janata Party has is that the massive mandate Modi secured gives him political capital to spend on significant reforms quickly. But the problem with such sudden, drastic changes is that there are opposing interests. For instance, the labour unions and political parties that agitate against such reform. This has prevented such changes in the past.

However, Modi's electoral sweep in the 2019 polls and total control of India's politics and his own party mean he has the space to deliver such changes, and quickly. We should expect to see them happen in the next few weeks.

Today, let us look at the matter of the individuals who comprise the Cabinet Committee on Security — the prime minister and the four top Cabinet ministers. No one predicted these names — finance, home, defence and external affairs — correctly, showing how tight a control this government keeps on information.

Not even the media anticipated the selection of diplomat S Jaishankar as foreign minister. It can be seen as an extension of the presidential style of politics we have been told this election was about, like in the United States, where the Cabinet comprises experts handpicked by the president; they don't have to be elected.

The ease with which Modi transferred individuals from one ministry to another indicates this style of working. The prime minister personally provides the higher direction of the ministry, and the minister then works with bureaucrats on implementation.

The choice of Jaishankar is interesting and unusual as he is an intellectual, a PhD-holder from a family of distinguished scholars. He will either have to change himself to accommodate the BJP's emotional approach to issues like relations with Pakistan, or he has been hired to change this approach. The former is the more likely guess.

In the finance ministry, Nirmala Sitharaman received yet another promotion. She was given the defence minister's role in a surprise move in the last Lok Sabha, and now, she has one of the most important Cabinet positions. Sitharaman's placidity no doubt helped her progress.

Similarly, Rajnath Singh has been transferred to the defence ministry, a lateral move from home in terms of importance.

It is these three ministries — external affairs, finance and defence — that Modi has taken most keen interest in running personally. Decisions such as the surgical strikes and the Balakot airstrikes have the stamp of his style, as well as the frequent visits to foreign locations and building personal relationships with leaders such as Chinese president Xi Jinping and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.

However, it was the finance ministry that saw fewer changes after 2014 than businesses expected. When questioned about this in the past, Modi had said India had already carried out significant economic reforms, and that better governance, not policy changes, was the need of the hour. With the Modi 2.0 government's planned changes in labour and land laws, he will consider the process complete.

Furthermore, in the home ministry at the Centre, Amit Shah will do for Modi what he did for him in Gujarat.

Shah was the home minister (not given Cabinet rank) for about a decade in Gujarat, reporting to Modi. Now, with the home minister's portfolio, he becomes the default number two in the Central government. Only in his mid-50s, we can expect Shah to rise further in the next five years.

Another aspect of Shah's induction that needs consideration is what it means for the BJP in terms of the party's further growth. Shah, his strategy and energy, is credited with much of the BJP's spread into difficult states like West Bengal and its retention of all its seats from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The current party chief has been a different and much more successful BJP president than his predecessors, including Nitin Gadkari and Venkaiah Naidu, also managing to reduce the BJP's dependency on the RSS on the ground and widening the party membership and its fundraising abilities vastly.

The BJP has had a one man, one post rule for some time now. It has ignored this norm occasionally, but surely, even for a man of Shah's talents, holding both the home minister and BJP president's roles won't be an easy task.

The new party president, along with these four top ministers and the prime minister, will, in large measure, control not only the future of the government and the party but also the country.

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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 11:45:12 IST