Prime Minister Narendra Modi effected sweeping changes in the portfolios of his ministers after inducting 19 new faces into the ministry on Tuesday.
Controversial minister Smriti Irani was shifted from the key Human Resources Development Ministry to the less significant Textiles Ministry and replaced by the newly elevated Cabinet minister Prakash Javadekar.
Smriti’s two-year tenure saw several showdowns with leading academics and controversies over Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad and the JNU student protests.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley shed the information and broadcasting portfolio, which went to Venkaiah Naidu, in addition to his other portfolios, including Urban Development.
However, Naidu lost parliamentary affairs, which was handed to Ananth Kumar who will retain his existing chemicals and fertilisers portfolio.
In a setback to Sadananda Gowda, he was shifted to the less significant Statistics and Programme Implementation Ministry from the high-profile law and justice portfolio. Ravi Shankar Prasad succeeded Gowda as the new law minister.
But Prasad, too, lost the important telecom portfolio, which was given to Manoj Sinha who will handle it as Minister of State (independent charge).
Madhav gets environment
In other changes, Narendra Singh Tomar was named the new Rural Development Minister and Birendra Singh the Steel Minister. Anil Madhav Dave got the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry (independent charge) in place of Javadekar.
Minister of State Jayant Sinha, who lost finance, was given civil aviation. In his place, newly inducted Arjun Meghwal, who has been in the forefront of a campaign seeking action against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, was made the new minister of state (finance) under Jaitley.
Earlier, Modi asked five junior ministers – holding the portfolios of agriculture, water resources, river development, tribal affairs and human resource development – to resign to make room for the new ministers. They are Nihalchand, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Mansukhbhai D Vasava and M K Kundariya. Their resignations were accepted by President Pranab Mukherjee.
Modi elevated Javadekar, who had impressed him with his global climate change negotiations and pro-industry policies. On the other hand, Mansukhbhai Dhanjibhai Vasava, a Lok Sabha member from Modi’s home state Gujarat, was given the sack apparently for resisting Javadekar’s move to dilute the watershed Forest Rights Act, considered by many in the government as a hurdle in environmental clearances.
Significantly, Modi’s plan for the BJP’s expansion of its social base ahead of the polls in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand was writ large in the reshuffle exercise. As the BJP is striving hard to strengthen its vote base among Dalits and other backward castes, four of the new ministers are Dalits, three are tribals and three OBCs. There are also one each from the Brahmin and Jat communities from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, respectively.
Ramesh C Jigajinagi (Karnataka), Ajay Tamta (Uttarakhand), Arjun Ram Meghwal (Rajasthan), Krishna Raj (UP) and Ramdas Athawale (Maharashtra), were among the Dalit MPs administered the oath of Office and Secrecy by the President at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The 17 new faces include BJP leaders S S Ahluwalia and M J Akbar and NDA allies Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal and Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India.
Two former ministers – Vijay Goel and Faggan Singh Kulaste – were also sworn in as ministers of state.
Akbar, a former journalist, was elected recently to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, while Goel, who hails from Delhi, represents Rajasthan in the Upper House. Ahluwalia was elected to the Lok Sabha from Darjeeling and Anupriya Patel was elected from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.
Other inductees are P P Chaudhary, C R Chaudhary (Rajasthan), Mahendra Nath Pandey (UP), Parshottam Rupala, Jaswantsinh Bhabhor and Mansukhbhai Mandaviya (Gujarat), Rajan Gohain (Assam) and S R Bhamre (Maharashtra). In all, Uttar Pradesh now has 16 ministers, the maximum from any state, in what is seen as a calculated step to keep the Dalit and OBC vote bank with the BJP as it has been facing the toughest test from Mayawati’s BSP in the past two decades.
Similarly, the induction of Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel, who is a Kurmi, is seen as a move to check the influence of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, also a Kurmi, who is making forays into eastern Uttar Pradesh. For poll-bound Uttarakhand, Modi has chosen Almora MP Ajay Tamta, a Dalit. In the case of Gujarat, which goes to the polls in December 2017, former state unit chief Parshottam Rupala, a Kadva Patel, was inducted along with Mansukhbhai Mandavia who belongs to the Leuva Patel community. The third induction from Gujarat was that of BJP tribal leader Jaswantsinh Bhabhor.
Interestingly, the re-entry of Goel and Ahluwalia as ministers is seen as a change of fortune of the two leaders who were not in the good books of the Modi establishment until not long ago. Ahluwalia, 65, was a minister in the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government before he joined the BJP and is seen as being close to party leader Sushma Swaraj.
With Tuesday’s expansion and axing of the five ministers, the total strength of the Council of Ministers stands at 79 as against the sanctioned strength of 82. Under the Constitution, the Council of Ministers can have a maximum of 15% of the total strength of the Lok Sabha, which has 542 members. The previous UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh had 77 ministers.
The last change in the Cabinet took place on March 7, 2015, when Jaitley was given the additional charge of Information and Broadcasting Ministry and Javadekar was left with the Environment portfolio.