So the biggest move (game-changer, said one over-the-top anchor) of Narendra Modi in this cabinet reshuffle is making Nirmala Sitharaman India’s first woman defence minister? There are women serving in the army and the mere appointment of a woman minister is the breaking of a glass ceiling? If the gender of a minister – and not any policy or directional change – is a game-changer, it is a sad commentary on our expectations from government. As for the media, the less said the better.
This cabinet reshuffle has certainly been a disappointment, barring some heartening exceptions.
Let’s get the exceptions out of the way, first. Piyush Goyal taking over from Suresh Prabhu as railway minister is good news. Prabhu was undertaking some significant reforms in railways – his only problem was that he was unable to deal with a railway bureaucracy running rings around him. It is unfortunate that he put in his papers after a series of railway accidents, but Indian politics requires such meaningless optics. Goyal is a go-getter and his chartered accountant background could be useful in dealing with the mess in railway finances. He has addressed some of the fundamental problems in the power sector (though how the UDAY scheme plays out in the long run remains to be seen). He will be getting an equally go-getter of a Railway Board chairman in Ashwani Lohani. So he is well placed to take Prabhu’s creditable legacy forward.
Fortunately, Prabhu has been given an equally important portfolio in commerce and industry. His immediate task will be to prepare for the World Trade Organisation ministerial in Buenos Aires in December. There are several knotty issues there and he will be on top of things. India needed a competent negotiator for the ministerial and Prabhu will fit the bill. The ministry holds other challenges for any minister – the need to grow the country’s exports at a time of increasing protectionism, the need to get investments going, to name two crucial ones. Prabhu’s presence gives a sense of reassurance.
The fact that Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi got promoted to cabinet rank is also a positive. All three have earned their spurs. R. K. Singh replacing Goyal in the power and renewable energy ministry is being touted as a positive, but one will have to see how he performs; the power sector is a pretty knotty one, after all.
But this reshuffle has certainly not been about rewarding performance. If that were the case, there would have been change in the agriculture ministry. Radha Mohan Singh’s stewardship of the ministry has been uninspiring, to say the least. Agriculture is in deep crisis and there was need for a dynamic minister there in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The argument being put out that Modi did not want to take any chances with new people having to learn the ropes does not wash. Singh has been given three years of chances; it has not worked. Sitharaman, too, did not exactly set the Yamuna on fire with her underwhelming stewardship of the commerce and industry ministry; yet she has got a promotion in rank and portfolio.
The performance-oriented reshuffle line draws strength from a shifting of additional charges of some ministers. But none of these are going to make a big difference to governance, which should have been the main criterion for the cabinet rejig exercise.
If this reshuffle was about performance, what explains ignoring the core strengths of people when allotting portfolios? This has been a common malaise in most governments over the decades and, unfortunately, Modi is continuing on the same path. What is the logic of putting Hardeep Puri, an extremely distinguished diplomat who would have been better placed in external affairs, commerce or defence as minister of state, in the urban development ministry? And in giving Alphons, a seasoned bureaucrat who shook up the Delhi Development Authority and was PS to Ram Jethmalani when he was urban affairs (or whatever that ministry was called those days) in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet, responsibility for tourism, a ministry that has no business to even exist? The befuddlement at these postings is best summed up in a tweet by Kunal Singh @d_extrovert: “In India if you have specialised in a particular field, it is counted as a negative in ministry allotment”.
A slight digression here to deal with the jeers about the induction of four ex-bureaucrats into the cabinet. That, Modi’s legion of critics say, is a sign of the lack of talent in the BJP and further proof of Modi’s preference for bureaucrats. This is a silly criticism. One, there is a factual problem with this. And all four are BJP members, Alphons since 2011. Two, if there is a lack of talent among elected representatives, that shows talented people lack winnability and that is a reflection on us voters. But R. K. Singh and Satya Pal Singh have won elections. Three, if you are bemoaning lack of talent, how can you object to Modi bringing in talent from outside? Doesn’t it show Modi in good light – he is accepting the lack of bench strength and is addressing it? Four, why should former bureaucrats not come into politics?
What completely boggles the mind is the way ministers have been given additional responsibilities. There is very little synergy with the main ministry in most cases. When Modi in 2014 clubbed power with new and renewable energy and, more importantly, coal, that seemed to indicate he understood the need to combine related ministries. But that principle has been completely undermined in the latest reshuffle.
What synergy does petroleum and natural gas have with skill development? Why has coal been de-linked from the power ministry? Goyal has additional charge of coal along with railways. The only link between coal and railways relates to movement and coordinating that does not require the railways minister to be in charge of the coal ministry. On the other hand, coal is important for the power sector and that is why the two ministries had been brought under a single minister in 2014. Why has Gadkari been given additional charge of water resources; what does it have to do with the transport related sectors he is looking after very competently? He’s pushing for inland waterways but that is a small part of what the water resources ministry deals with. What is the logic of clubbing mines with rural development and panchayati raj?
All in all, this exercise is a waste of opportunity. Pity.