It’s often said in BJP circles that when it comes to pulling surprises, none can match Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his virtual second-in-command, home minister Amit Shah. Strategising in complete secrecy, both are known to keeping people around them guessing about their move. Uday Mahurkar specially for the India Today.
If Yogi Adityanath’s selection as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 2017 foxed political analysts, Modi’s decision to pick Nirmala Sitharaman as India’s first woman defence minister was a masterstroke that drew great public traction. Now, in his second innings in office, the prime minister’s choices for his new cabinet have caused shock and awe-and how.
Take the finance ministry’s case for instance. That Piyush Goyal, who had handled the portfolio in Arun Jaitley’s absence on medical grounds in the previous government, would not be considered for the post raised eyebrows. Though Sitharaman’s selection as finance minister surprised many, she was apparently rewarded for her diligence and ability to conform to Modi and Shah’s thinking in matters of governance. Also surprising to many was the move to drop Maneka Gandhi and Rajyavardhan Rathore, who held the key ministries of information & broadcasting (I&B) and sports in the previous government. That Goyal would stand 17th in the queue at the swearing-in ceremony on May 30 and Dharmendra Pradhan, who is credited with implementing the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, even after was as much baffling. Nitin Gadkari being deprived of shipping and Ganga rejuvenation, which has been merged in the new jal shakti ministry, despite a very good performance, was puzzling too. The general impression is that Gadkari, Goyal and Pradhan did a good job of the tasks given to them.
THE JAITLEY STAMP
Though former finance minister Jaitley’s absence has left a vacuum in the Union cabinet, his imprint on the composition of the team is unmistakable-particularly Sitharaman, one of his favourites, as the finance minister. Though Goyal was ‘compensated’ with the commerce and industry portfolio, apart from railways, it is widely believed in BJP circles that he was denied finance because of his disagreements with Jaitley on crucial policy matters while he was the interim finance minister.
Among Jaitley’s other picks are junior minister for finance and corporate affairs Anurag Singh Thakur, his former colleague from the cricketing world, and Som Parkash and Hardeep Singh Puri, the two ministers of state (MoS) for commerce and industry. Angadi Suresh Channabasappa, MoS railways, too, is considered to be close to Jaitley.
While the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) considered Prakash Javadekar a slow mover in his previous stint as HRD minister, especially over the revamp of the school curricula, the BJP leader enjoyed the backing of Modi and Shah. As the election in-charge for Rajasthan and later Karnataka, Javadekar had endeared himself to Modi and Shah with his skilful handling of party factionalism in these states. He was rewarded with the environment and forest portfolio and additionally I&B.
THE WINNERS AND LOSERS
Narendra Singh Tomar and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat were rewarded for their performances in the previous government and contributions in the BJP. Tomar not only retained rural development, but also got charge of the crucial ministry of agriculture. Shekhawat, who was promoted to cabinet rank, was given the jal shakti ministry where he has the opportunity to implement Modi’s plan of supplying piped water to every Indian household by 2024.
Jayant Sinha apparently paid the price for father Yashwant Sinha’s continuing hostility towards Modi-Shah while Maneka lost out owing to her somewhat mediocre performance in the women and child development ministry as well as her alleged utterances against the PM and the BJP president. Her son Varun Gandhi ran an almost open campaign against Modi and Shah on social media, but turned into their supporter when they didn’t deny him a Lok Sabha ticket. That, however, did not prevent the axe from falling on Maneka.
Staunch Modi loyalist Giriraj Singh got an upgrade to full cabinet rank from MoS and was given charge of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, which covers his pet theme of cow protection. But the choice of S. Jaishankar for external affairs, it is learnt, did not go down well with some quarters in the ministry as well as the RSS, the view being that he is too pro-US. But Modi thought Jaishankar was a necessity in view of India’s deteriorating relationship with the US and the balancing act that New Delhi requires to do between the US, China and Russia. Former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was conveyed that in her current health condition, it was better for her to drop out. Jaitley’s voluntary withdrawal gave thrust to the argument and Swaraj took it in her stride.
While the jury’s out on the cabinet appointments, sources close to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) describe them as professional decisions. A source says Gadkari was given the problematic Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) portfolio so that the sector can be energised. “We see Gadkari as a problem solver,” the source said.
Regarding Goyal and Pradhan, the PMO is of the view that both have been rewarded-Goyal with commerce and Pradhan with steel, which has major presence in his state of Odisha. Gadkari’s former MoS in shipping, Mansukh L. Mandaviya, was promoted with independent charge of the ministry because he not only helped in the BJP’s clean sweep of Gujarat in the Lok Sabha election, but was also instrumental in pulling Patels out of the support base of Patidar pro-reservation leader Hardik Patel in Saurashtra.
THE AXE EFFECT
According to PMO sources, among the reasons that Radha Mohan Singh was dropped as Agriculture Minister, was because of complaints that his ministry had allegedly favoured a private company, the Hyderabad-based Nagarjuna Agro Chemicals (NAC), in the sale of soil testing kits (STKs) required for assessment of soil and issuing of soil health cards to some 140 million farmers across the country. Both Singh and the NAC, however, had strongly denied the allegations.