A powerful Amit Shah, key takeaway from cabinet reshuffle

A powerful Amit Shah, key takeaway from cabinet reshuffle

A powerful Amit Shah, key takeaway from cabinet reshuffle
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reset power equations in his dispensation with his second and biggest cabinet expansion since he assumed office in May 2014.

Unlike his last exercise in November 2014 when he made a conscious effort to search for and induct talent into his ministry (Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar are two notable examples), the current expansion is driven by pure politics as Modi gears up not just for the crucial assembly polls next year but also the 2019 Lok Sabha election which is less than three years away.

Two strong messages emerge from the dramatic expansion-cum-reshuffle. One is the rise and rise of BJP president Amit Shah who is now clearly the most powerful man in the ruling dispensation after Narendra Modi. Till recently, a triumvirate of Modi-Shah-(Finance Minister) Arun Jaitley ruled the roost. But the starring role played by Shah in the reshuffle suggests that the triumvirate has given way to a duopoly consisting of Modi and Shah.

The second is the reframing of the understanding between the Modi government and the BJP’s mentor, the RSS. The unexpected shifting of Smriti Irani from the HRD ministry must be seen together with the unceremonious sacking of her junior minister, Ram Katheria, an RSS pracharak, who is very closely associated with the Sangh and its affiliates. The fact that he is a Dalit from UP but Modi still chose to dump him on the eve of a crucial assembly election in that state is a significant statement on the new equation that Modi has set with the RSS.

Both Irani and Katheria were working closely with the RSS, in particularly RSS joint general secretary in charge of the BJP, Krishna Gopal. Modi has moved them out and replaced them with ministers who will work the PMO, not the Sangh. Prakash Javadekar has been coordinating closely with the PMO in the environment ministry and had established a good working rhythm with Modi. Katheria has been replaced by someone is not even from the BJP and therefore, has no connection to the RSS, Upendra Khushwaha. He is an NDA ally from Bihar.

The move suggests that the PM has reclaimed the HRD portfolio from the RSS and brought education under his control. But he has taken with one hand and given with the other, indicating the delicate nature of the relationship with the Sangh.

The environment ministry, which is another area in which the RSS has strong interests, has been given to Anil Dave, a form-er pracharak, close to the RSS and a dedica-
ted environment activist. So while education will now be managed by the PMO through Javadekar, Modi has decided to let go of environment. It’s an interesting barter, the consequences of which will unfold with time.

The pivotal role played by Amit Shah in the expansion exercise is a clear signal from Modi that the BJP president is more than just a party chief. He is virtually a shadow prime minister, whose brief is slowly but steadily extending beyond organisational work to matters of state.

Not only did Shah handpick the 19 newcomers into the Modi ministry, he had a major say in the allocation and reshuffle of portfolios. His importance can be gauged from the fact that he was the one who called in the new entrants one by one to give them the good news. This is a task that is traditionally performed by the prime minister.

Vajpayee and his deputy Advani used to do it jointly. It was the same in the UPA tenure when Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi would meet new ministers together. Everyone knew that Sonia was the final authority even for the choice of members of Manmohan’s ministerial council but they observed the tradition of the PM’s privilege. When Modi assumed office and then again when he expanded his ministry six months later, he personally invited every would-be minister to meet him.

By staying out of the picture this time and handing over this prime ministerial privilege to Shah, Modi has exalted the party president’s position in his dispensation. Interestingly, Shah is believed to have pushed strongly for Irani’s removal from the HRD ministry. He personally called on her mentor Krishan Gopal to explain the reasons why her departure from this crucial ministry beloved to the RSS was a political necessity.

Battling PMO

At the behest of the RSS, Irani was locked in a battle with the PMO on several critical issues. These include a move by her to restrict the autonomy of the IIMs and her plans for the setting up of global universities. The PMO was not on the same page but Irani displayed unwelcome reluctance to accommodate the government’s views and cull out a compromise with the RSS.

More importantly, her role in the controversy that arose from the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula had made her continuing presence in the HRD ministry a red rag to Dalit communities across India. Shah had made aggressive Dalit outreach an important plank for next year’s UP polls and word had got back to him from the ground that Dalits across the state blamed Irani for Vemula’s death and its aftermath. She had to be “punished’’ if only to send a strong message to Dalits that the BJP is sensitive to their concerns.

Review of the understanding with RSS as the Modi government nears the halfway point of its tenure is the first indication that the PM and his powerful deputy are beginning to comprehend the political cost of antagonising students across university campuses. Several universities are in turmoil because the Sangh has been aggressively pushing its student’s wing, ABVP, to enlarge its footprint in educational institutions.

The imposition of a regressive educational agenda through violent student activism has hit Modi’s image as a modern reformer. With an eye on upcoming polls leading into the big one in 2019, Modi seems to be attempting to undo the damage.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)
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