PMO stamp in Cabinet rejig

Among many political, administrative and ideological messages in the changes in the council of ministers that Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried out, the most important was the unambiguous stamp of his office.

The sweep of influence of the Prime Minister’s Office in Tuesday’s rejig was rarely witnessed in the past three decades.

In expanding this influence of the central government, the PM was assisted by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah.

The changes in the Cabinet rejig worked at several levels.

They were definitely done with an eye on electoral compulsions — Dalits and Other Backward Classes found increased representation. New ministers were inducted from states that are either electorally crucial for the BJP (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat) or are going to polls in the near future (Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh).

Also, alliance building was kept in mind. Allies like Republican Party of India (A)’s Ramdas Athawale and Apna Dal’s Anupriya Patel were made ministers.

There was an effort for more efficient political management, not only to reach out to Opposition parties but other stakeholders, like the media, as well as assuage different camps within the BJP.

A straight-talking M Venkaiah Naidu was made in charge of the information and broadcasting ministry, while Arun Jaitley, seen as a liberal voice in the Sangh Parivar and the party, was divested of that portfolio.

Ananth Kumar, known for his access to leaders from across the political platform, was entrusted with the parliamentary affairs ministry, while S S Ahluwalia, a former Congressman, was appointed a minister of state in that portfolio.

“Induction of Vijay Goel and Ahluwalia and greater responsibility to Ananth Kumar is an olive branch to camps within the BJP that had felt slighted in the manner the council of ministers was selected in May 2014,” said a party insider.

The exercise also increased the coherence between the party, the government and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Sangh was never comfortable with Smriti Irani as the human resource development (HRD) ministry, although she tried to toe its line. Prakash Javadekar, a more courteous individual, is more in sync with the RSS worldview on education.

On why Irani was removed from the HRD even as she was seen as loyal to RSS, an official said, “She could not grow in the role she was given. The PM may have realised this. And, her replacement (Javadekar) would fit the portfolio as well with the RSS agenda unlikely to be sacrificed.’’

Amit Shah had a say in the change, as he did when Irani was excluded from the BJP National Executive in April 2015.

“But it would be incorrect to conclude that Irani has been punished. She found herself, because of her personality and the media hounding her, in a situation not of her making. Textiles is likely to see much activity in the coming months with the new policy having been announced,” a source in the government said. It is an assessment some party leaders that Business Standard spoke to also corroborated.

Similarly, Anil Madhav Dave at the ministry of environment and forests understands the “swadeshi” view of development, while Ananth Kumar is considered close to RSS second in command Dattatreya Hosabale. The appointment of M J Akbar, a moderate liberal Muslim, to external affairs was also a part of the government’s image makeover. Jayant Sinha shifted from finance to civil aviation was for reasons similar for which Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan was hounded, a source said. His successors, Santosh Gangwar and Arjun Ram Meghwal, are suitably swadesi. “But Sinha’s shift to Civil Aviation is an opportunity in work clothes. The sector will see much activity now that a new policy has been announced,” said a source.

Another overriding message to the ministers was their performance quotient. According to a person tracking this government closely, the reshuffle again showed that Modi likes to spring surprises.

Ravi Shankar Prasad may have been replaced by Manoj Sinha at the communications ministry because it is increasingly being felt that a high-profile minister is not required when telecom policies are likely to be driven by the PMO. The PM’s principal secretary Nripendra Misra is a veteran telecom man, having served as both the secretary of the department of telecom and the chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in the past. Prasad’s change in portfolio (he retains IT and electronics and gets charge of law) is also being linked to the high rate of call drops and failure to achieve last-mile connectivity in the hinterland — both a touchy issue for the PM. Another important factor that may have played in the PM’s mind is that telecom is a controversial sector with plenty of interface with big businesses. He may have decided to be cautious, not letting any one person hold the portfolio for long, to rule out any chance of any scam. At the administrative level, the PM has placed those with previous ministerial experience, at the Centre as well as states, as MoS in key portfolios.

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PMO stamp in Cabinet rejig

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