What signal is sent out by the expansion of the Council of Ministers and the sacking of 12 ministers? That the government has dumped “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”? Or that it has no place for the feckless while it welcomes fresh faces and talent?
In reality, the creation of a jumbo council of ministers is an admission that one man’s charisma is no longer deemed sufficient to win forthcoming elections, and that investment has to be made in as many sections of India’s diverse population as can be wooed by finding a place for their deemed representative in Team Modi.
Newspaper headlines scream out the caste affiliations of our ministers: 27 are from Other Backward Castes, 12 come from Scheduled Castes and, eight from Scheduled Tribes. Women and those from religious minorities, too, are counted not as ministers in their own right but as representatives of larger constituencies.
One reason why such a view finds takers is that this has been the most centralised administration in India’s history. It is widely believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) run the government, with some inputs from Home Minister Amit Shah. If running the government is done by the PMO, that leaves to individual ministers their role as tokens of their social constituency’s share in political power.
Precisely because of such a perception of centralisation, it is difficult to convince people that the ministers who have been let go are being penalised for their poor performance or that the ministers who have been retained are sterling performers.
To term the way the pandemic has been handled, ‘COVID management’ is to attribute design and intent to the misery foisted on hapless migrant workers, to the failure to order millions of doses COVID-19 vaccines at least when Serum Institute in Pune invested its own capital to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, to the presumptuous declaration of victory over COVID-19 in blissful dismissal of any possible second wave of the pandemic, to the rallying of political and religious crowds and to the oxygen crisis. Surely, there was no design or intent to these failings. That leaves us with COVID-19 mismanagement.
Was Harsh Vardhan sacked for COVID mismanagement? Did the buck stop with him for anything? What was Javadekar’s fault? Was the dilution of environmental norms during his watch his solitary doing? Ravi Shankar Prasad tirelessly batted for the government. What people in the media find fault with, for example, on the intermediary guidelines for social media and online news sites, the government continues to stand by, meaning Prasad was doing his job. Why was he sacked? Why do opposites attract and like repel the like? When our leaders’ hearts bleed for the people, why don’t their tears have colour? The questions are blowing in the wind.
Jyotiraditya Scindia’s and Narayan Rane’s induction into the Cabinet is a clear invitation to yet more leaders of Opposition parties to shed their inhibitions and join the dance. Scindia did not just bring down the Congress government and overturn the people’s mandate for the state of Madhya Pradesh. He got many of those defectors re-elected to the assembly, showing he has popular support, at least in and around Gwalior. Rane’s presumed influence in Konkan is what makes him an acceptable tool with which to rile the Shiv Sena, his former party, and probably boost support in the Goa assembly elections slated for next year.
At the same time, there is no open invitation to leaders who appear fully formed atop party structures without the grind of climbing up its organisational echelons, accumulating popular goodwill and endorsement on the way. This comes out clearly from the treatment of Chirag Paswan, the late Ram Vilas Paswan’s son and presumed heir apparent. He had rendered the BJP sterling service during the Bihar assembly elections, dividing the votes of BJP ally JD(U)’s candidates and giving the BJP the upper hand in its Bihar alliance. Chirag was dealt the mortification of seeing his rustic uncle, whom he had dismissed as a non-entity, being feted by the Prime Minister, even as he protests in vain, outside not just the government, but his father’s party as well.
This is a warning that popular support is a necessary condition for political accommodation by the Modi government. So, for example, a Sachin Pilot or a Rajiv Shukla might be allowed to eat a laddoo at the BJP party headquarters from the hands of a senior BJP leader, but would not be granted a place in the Council of Ministers, and instead, be given the same treatment as Chirag Paswan. In politics, support of the people matters, not gratitude for past services. Chirag would do well to either spend some years at the grassroots or revive his aborted film career.
The Cabinet expansion also grooms certain leaders for a larger role, for example, Anurag Thakur for Himachal Pradesh. It also signals the leadership’s endorsement of Thakur’s lethal sloganeering choice during the Delhi assembly elections.
On the whole, the Cabinet expansion sends out a message of a more sober realisation chinks in the government’s armour and an attempt to repair them.