Drastic changes during Modi ministry reshuffle unlikely

Drastic changes during Modi ministry reshuffle unlikely
The talk of a big overhaul of the Union Council of Ministers and the BJP has been in the air in the Capital for some time now as its government has completed two years in office. There is speculation that a few new faces will be inducted, and portfolios of some ministers will be reshuffled. 

The reshuffle is expected to follow or coincide with a similar party-level exercise to be conducted by BJP president Amit Shah. He is said to have prepared a list of at least 30 young leaders in each state, keeping the regional social composition in mind. The party is apparently concerned about the quality of performance of some ministries and its leadership in the states that go to the polls in 2017 and 2018.

Many senior BJP leaders, who used to handle party affairs, are now either in the Union Cabinet or on gubernatorial assignments. There is a dearth of experienced hands for roles both in the government and the party. Therefore, the talk of the party inducting fresh blood to rejuvenate its organisation and the ministries has gained serious urgency. Some BJP insiders have wondered whether a couple of Union ministers may be sent back to the party, particularly to strengthen the party organisation.

Apart from seeking to reward the performers and show the door to the laggards, the reshuffle is supposed to be undertaken keeping in mind the forthcoming Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka state elections. That means the states like Bihar which are seen as “over represented” in the Union Cabinet may see their nominees give way for more representations for the states going to polls in 2017 and 2018.

After being two years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had the opportunity to assess the strength and weakness of his team that consists of 70 ministers against the allowed strength of 81.

A big call will need to be taken by Modi on whether the reshuffle exercise should be involve many new inductions and dropping of under-performing ministers, say party officials.

Secondly, he has to decide  on senior BJP leaders like Minority Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla and Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Kalraj Mishra who will attain 75, which is seen as the cut-off age for holding position in the Modi cabinet.

Modi and Shah, party officials believe, have already completed a “detailed exercise” to ensure that the changes are to the “maximum advantage” of the party and the “optimum working” of the government. However, even as speculation is rife on who may come into the Cabinet and whose portfolios will change, a drastic overhaul of the Union Council of Ministers does not seem likely.

The prime minister and the BJP chief may not venture to try out something drastic as the party and the government. The Modi government is holding “vikas parv” (festival of development) to highlight what it has done in the last two years. A shift of focus does not fit the plans of Modi and the party. Besides, Modi has remained the key figure of this government. All initiatives are seen part of his efforts for a paradigm shift in governance.

In this task, the BJP’s narrative is that Modi is assisted in this task by “able” hands including  senior party leaders – Arun Jaitley (finance), Rajnath Singh (home), Manohar Parrikar (defence), Sushma Swaraj (foreign affairs), Nitin Gadkari (highways and ports),  Suresh Prabhu (railways), Piyush Goel (power and coal), Venkaiah Naidu (urban development and smart cities), and Nirmala Sitharaman (commerce). They have become the face of what one calls the Modi government.

Any drastic change would mean disturbing this arrangement, which may not be on the prime minister’s mind. Also, the opposition will read it as an admission that things have not worked well so far.

Government’s image

Those close to Modi recall that even during the days of his innings as chief minister (2001-2014), he did not carry out major changes just for the sake of creating an impact on the image of his government. Changes were only made for administrative convenience or social equations.

Similarly, any change in the Union Council of Ministers will definitely have to follow a stated or unstated, but a clear purpose, that serves Modi’s political objectives or the BJP’s plans to consolidate its role as the principal ruling party at the Centre. Moreover, Modi will not overlook the lessons that the BJP learnt during the Vajpayee government’s period, old timers say.

A reshuffle of the Union Ministry done in July 2002 and January 2003 saw changes that were supposed to meet the gaps in the government and the party but ended up giving different impressions. In the case of the July 2002 reshuffle, it was Advani’s elevation as deputy prime minister. In January 2003, then prime minister A B Vajpayee sent some of his younger ministers – Pramod Mahajan, Ananth Kumar and Uma Bharti – back to the party to rejuvenate the organisational machinery. While doing so, Vajpayee brought back to the ministry Arun Jaitley within seven months of his leaving the government to undertake party work.

But these changes only showed a dearth of ministerial talent within the government.   Vajpayee could not also prevent an impression being gained that he had allowed his authority to be diluted. 

Cut to 2016, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combination has had the government and the party in their control and the ministers are deemed to have fulfilled the role assigned to them. Therefore, any change in the party or the government will not be about new equations but about strengthening Modi’s hands and the party chief for the desired outcome in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha polls in 2019, according to the insiders.

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