Political messaging of Cabinet reshuffle

Anil Anand

The one hallmark of Narendra Modi era since 2014 has been his belief in creating a “MEGA” syndrome in whatever task he or his Government has undertaken, as an imagination catching and headlines making devise. It ranges from the erecting a giant Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel statue in Gujarat, to launching mega-dimensional projects such as building “shauchalayas, to Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana providing free LPG connections/cylinders to women or above all the culture of huge political/electoral rallies with multidimensional and multicoloured tech-heavy settings never seen before in India’s politico-electoral history.
The recent Cabinet expansion/ reshuffle of Modi-02 dispensation clearly carry the tell-tale signs of this syndrome with 77 ministers almost half of which are new faces. By all standards it was huge and one of the biggest Cabinet expansion in the last seven decades.
Some may say that it was a go-by to Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated and catchy watch-word “Less Government- More Governance” and in some respects it was, but given the size and complexities of the country and the need to give representations to various states, regions and religions and ethnic groups, the phrase become questionable. The “Less Government…..” as envisaged currently would definitely mean more reliance on bureaucracy with limited number of Ministers becoming multi-tasking (handling more than one portfolios).
The mega dimensions of the Cabinet changes exercise were induction of 36 new ministers in one go and dropping of 12 existing one’s including six cabinet ministers holding key portfolios. The only other time when such a big number of Ministers were dropped was in the 1960s when Kamraj plan was implemented in the then Congress.
Yes, it does reflect an exercise meant to give a thorough makeover to the Modi Cabinet ostensibly to ward off criticism that emanated in the wake of “mishandling” of the situation during COVID-19 pandemic that included non-availability of Oxygen and vaccinations, and managing the unorganised labour as lakhs, rendered jobless and homeless by the pandemic, walked bare-foot to their villages.
No one should have any qualms as it is always prerogative of the Prime Minister to select his ministerial team. But this cabinet expansion/reshuffle did not take place under normal circumstances, in view of the pandemic and a struggling economic condition leading to joblessness and other societal difficulties, and so questions are bound to be raised.
Notwithstanding denials from the Government and the ruling BJP quarters, the dropping of the Cabinet of Ministers of Health and Family Welfare (Dr Harsh Vardhan, Education (Mr Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank), Social Justice and Empowerment (Mr Thawwar Chand Gehlot), Information and Broadcasting (Mr Prakash Javedkar) and Labour (Mr Santosh Gangwar) seems to have a direct relation at least with the COVID-19 pandemic related situation.
Did they lose their job due to poor performance? Or did they end up becoming scapegoats? These are the questions being asked both in the public domain as well as in the political circles.
It seems the Ministers such as Dr Vardhan, Mr Javdekar and Mr Gangwar proved unequal to match the essentials of war of perception. They lost the battle despite having a good track-record and an impeccable image. After all the politics as well as the governance, world-over, has become a slave or beneficiary of the battle of perception. Unfortunately, the media has been playing a significant role in the perception building or destruction.
The axing of these Ministers, who were directly handling the issues related to COVID-19 situation and its fall-out, has to be perceived as an exercise to change the narrative. It is rather sad that Dr Vardhan, a reputed ENT specialist having successfully handled the universal polio vaccination which was lauded by the WHO, has been made to look like a fall guy. His replacement in the Health Ministry has raised more questions on the real intent behind replacing the incumbent who is a low profile politician with a zest for work. So has been Mr Gangwar who is an eight time MP from Barelley in Uttar Pradesh. Unfortunately, he was dropped even being three years short of the 75-year deadline for being consigned to “Margdarshak Mandal) in the august company of BJP veterans Mr L K A dvani and Dr M M Joshi.
It is a clear case of axing some to shield others. Injecting fresh faces and new talent is always laudable particularly in Indian politics where the established players refuse to give an inch of space to the youngsters and freshers. Almost half of the 77 in the Ministers in the Cabinet are new faces of which 12 are first-time parliamentarians.
The Cabinet expansion/reshuffle was definitely heavy on political messaging with an eye on future set of assembly elections in seven states ( 2022-2023) leading to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls with a clear focus on caste arithmetic. Nevertheless, there are four key take-aways of this Cabinet expansion/reshuffle with first and foremost being managing the caste arithmetic.
On the positive side there has been a successful endeavour to give a younger look to the Cabinet. Mr Modi has succeeded in bringing down the average age of his Cabinet.
It has been a painstaking exercise on developing the proper caste combination in terms of giving Ministerial representation with an eye on future elections. The Other Backward Castes (OBCs) being a huge segment, and unsure about desired electoral support of SCs/STs categories, it has become a focus area for both the Government as well as the ruling party.
This can be gauged from the fact that out of 77 there are 27 Ministers belonging to the OBC category mostly non-Yadavs a grouping which is seen backing Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh where assembly elections are due next year and the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Following this Ministry overhaul, there are five OBC, two Dalits and three tribal Ministers having Cabinet berths. Clearly the OBCs have been rewarded for supporting the BJP in successive elections since 2014 the overhaul suggests that they are crucially significant to the party’s prospects in the upcoming assembly elections. The OBC has become important more so as the BJP seems not to sure about the total backing up of the Dalit communities as was the case in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Cabinet expansion has a clear and louder message for the NDA allies as well as those having defected to BJP and under this garb to the prospective defectors. The messaging to the allies is double fold- one of bonhomie and other a clear warning. The examples of the first variety are dealing with Janata Dal (U) and some smaller allies such as Apna Dal and others in UP by giving them ministerial berths.
The other variety of dealing with allies is the case of Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP) founded by late Ram Vilas Paswan. Fall in line face the music, seems to be the clear message emerging from the manner in which the LJSP has been fragmented but interestingly made to look like a family feud.