Modi’s Cabinet reshuffle sees focus on ‘good governance’ ahead of 2019 election

By UK India Business Council (UKIBC)

Divya Dwivedi, UKIBC's Head of Policy & Communications, examines the implications of Prime Minister Modi's recent reshuffle

Prime Minister Modi’s Sunday reshuffle – probably the final reshuffle of the Union Cabinet before the 2019 Lok Sabha election – can best be described as a skillful combination of political accountability, image building and calculated risk taking.

The contours and composition of this third cabinet reshuffle distinctly reflect the immediate priorities of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as it approaches the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. These priorities include; reviving economic growth, creating jobs, kick starting private sector investment, rebooting the farm economy, closing infrastructure projects, and ensuring the country’s borders are safe.

Modi’s India is an India that allows continuous churning of ideas, society, economic activity; it is an India of continuous but sustainable change, leading to inclusive economic growth. This is a long-term strategy, with a longer implementation phase, and is based on calculated risk taking, resource identification, and resource allocation, followed up by strategic placement of the key resources in some key ministries to ensure last mile delivery.

The reshuffle can therefore be seen as an administrative exercise based on the Prime Minister’s ‘4P’ principle which boils down to; ‘Passion, Proficiency, Professional and Political Acumen,’ – sending a clear signal that performance is the key and will be rewarded.

The reshuffle and expansion on Sunday thus saw the elevation of those seen as performing, while sending out a clear political message regarding the intention of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) to expand its footprint in South and Eastern India, while consolidating its position in Northern India with an eye to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The elevation of four ministers in Prime Minister Modi’s Cabinet is also a testimony to the fact that gender-based constructs which have been the so-called norm has no role to play in elevations and allocations. Performance though, certainly does.

Nirmala Sitharaman has been promoted and is the new Defence Minister, after having proven her competence as Commerce and Industries Minister, while Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan will now take over at the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Pradhan’s additional remit will see him play an important role in addressing the challenge of creating jobs to absorb the 12 million new workers joining the workforce every year. Similarly, Piyush Goyal, the new Rail Minister has been entrusted with the task of pushing the faster rollout of the reforms initiated by the outgoing minister, Suresh Prabhu, thus giving rise to a new generation within the BJP.

An established achiever, Nitin Gadkari has also been made the Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, along with his previously held portfolio of Transportation and Shipping.  Suresh Prabhu with his proven record of accomplishment, although marred with some recent controversies, has been appointed as Commerce and Industry Minister.

Keeping in mind the focus on performance based delivery, the new faces also include four former bureaucrats – Home Secretary, Raj Kumar Singh, Mumbai Police Commissioner, Satya Pal Singh, senior Indian diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, and Delhi Development Authority Commissioner, K.J. Alphons, who has a proven work record and commitment to the party. Their appointment reflects Modi’s aim to professionalise political delivery and will also help to defy the opposition’s claim of talent deficiency within the party.

The cabinet reshuffle also reflects a thought often enunciated by the Prime Minister; the creation of a ‘New India’ – a more progressive and tolerant country. Giving more power to women is key to this ‘New India,’ hence the moves that are being made. The elevation of the lone Muslim face in the Council of Ministers – that of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi – holds much political significance at a time when the Modi Government’s overall approach to the community has come into question. The simultaneous exit of Naresh Balyan, who has drawn widespread criticism for his alleged role in the Muzaffarnagar riots, showcases Mr Modi’s commitment towards a more tolerant India for sustainable and inclusive growth.

It’s important to note that all the new inductions belong to the BJP – even though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has only recently been growing its national electoral footprint. Indeed, all the ministers who were elevated, belong to the BJP – a clear showcase of a supremely confident party, as its team matures for delivery. The underlying message of the reshuffle therefore seems very clear – the emergence of a strong and unified BJP under Prime Minister Modi. This is a party confident in expanding its popularity across the whole country.

A newly confident BJP is now seemingly focusing on states which will help consolidate its national position for the 2019 elections. New additions to the cabinet include two each from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, key states who together elect 120 MPs to the Lok Sabha. While Satya Pal Singh and Shiv Pratap Shukla (Minister of State in the Finance Ministry) come from Uttar Pradesh, Raj Kumar Singh and Ashwini Kumar Choubey (Minister of State in the Health and Family Welfare Ministry) belong to Bihar.

However, Southern India continues to be a big challenge for the BJP and addressing it will require the implementation of a well-thought-out strategy. It is worth highlighting that Mr Venkaiah Naidu, a veteran in politics from Southern India, was recently elected as the Vice President of India. This, coupled with the elevation of Ms Sitharaman to the Cabinet and the appointment of Anant Kumar Hegde as a Minister of State in Ministry of Skill Development from Karnataka again highlights the BJP’s aggressive expansion plans based on talent identification, astute political manoeuvres, and a new order coming into its own.

This new order, however, is not limited to the Modi Government. The party is next in line and a major reorganisation can be expected. There have been a few rounds of bureaucratic reshuffles, which have seen the Prime Minister directly reach out to the bureaucracy over the last few months, and there seems to be a newfound reliance on former bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Council of Ministers. Each of these factors serve as indicators to a wider strategy of expanding the talent base and bringing in expertise wherever necessary, to create a new BJP order – in the government and the party itself.

However, with only two years until the next Lok Sabha elections, it will be interesting to see how these new appointments will help to deliver on Mr Modi’s developmental agenda.

The author is Divya Dwivedi, Head of Policy and Communications (India), UK India Business Council

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