Never in his seven years as prime minister had Narendra Modi looked as vulnerable as he did at the peak of the second wave of Covid-19 this May. The pandemic struck with a ferocity that caught his government flat-footed. As the death toll mounted, compounded by a criminal shortage of medical oxygen, Modi and his government’s credibility were severely dented. With states imposing rolling lockdowns, the economy slipped further into the doldrums. People across the country were truly hurting. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ignominious defeat in the high-stakes battle for the West Bengal assembly strengthened the perception that the Modi government was running out of momentum. This was barely two years after Modi won a historic second term with back-to-back majorities in Parliament, firmly cementing his aura of invincibility. The situation had changed for the worse in no time.
Sensing that it was a now or never moment, Modi did what he does best—convert adversity into opportunity. He turned a routine cabinet expansion into a mega makeover of Team Modi, designed to meet several major imperatives. The first was that having initiated the second generation of economic reforms to transform the country, it was crucial that his government delivered on its plans and promises before losing the plot altogether. That meant cutting out the deadwood and revamping his cabinet to introduce a new energy and dynamism that could help his government meet the daunting challenges.
So, in a signal to the rest of his colleagues that performance matters, he axed seven veteran cabinet ministers, asking them to resign before the expansion. Among them were ministers who held two crucial portfolios: the health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, and the education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal. Both were seen as unable to effectively deal with the challenges their respective ministries faced. That Modi meant business was evident in his dropping two high-profile ministers: Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad, who held multiple key portfolios between them. They ostensibly resigned so that they could be drafted for party work, but the need for fresh talent was evident. Others were asked to resign for their somewhat lacklustre performance or advancing age. Among these were D.V. Sadananda Gowda, who held the chemicals and fertilisers portfolio; Thawarchand Gehlot, who held social justice; and Santosh Gangwar, who was the minister of state for labour and employment.
Good performers, on the other hand, were rewarded, as Modi elevated seven ministers of state as cabinet ministers: Hardeep Singh Puri, Raj Kumar Singh, Anurag Thakur, Kiren Rijiju, Mansukh Mandaviya, G. Kishan Reddy and Parshottam Rupala. Simultaneously, he injected fresh blood into his cabinet by inducting two former chief ministers—Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal and Maharashtra’s Narayan Rane—and a former Union minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had defected to the BJP from the Congress 16 months ago. Modi also appointed two rising stars—Bhupender Yadav and Ashwini Vaishnaw—as cabinet ministers. The inclusion of three others—Virendra Kumar, Pashupati Kumar Paras and Ramchandra Prasad Singh—reflects political compulsions and the need to accommodate allies. Virendra Kumar, a BJP MP, has been included as a prominent Dalit face.
The second big imperative before Modi was to bring greater synergy among ministries by rationalising the portfolios. Before the revamp, at least 10 cabinet ministers had charge of two or more disparate portfolios, which was certainly not conducive to good governance. Modi has now made a conscious effort to create virtuous clusters as well as leverage their individual competencies. Dharmendra Pradhan, for instance, while replacing Pokhriyal as the new education minister, was also given charge of skill development. This is important because, so far, skill development was given stepmotherly treatment despite it being a vital link between education and employment. Mandaviya was not only given the all-important health portfolio, but, in a departure, was also made the minister of chemicals and fertilisers. Since pharmaceuticals fall under the chemicals department, and given the need for vaccines and drugs to treat Covid, Mandaviya can now deal with the health challenges posed by the pandemic more effectively. It might have been even better had the fertiliser component been shifted to the agriculture ministry. Piyush Goyal was divested of railways but retained charge of commerce and industry, and food and public distribution. In addition, he was given textiles.
Some ministers still have odd clusters of ministries, but these have been justified given the wide range of competence of the ministers who have been put in charge. So the new railways minister Vaishnaw was also given charge of the ministry of electronics and information technology and telecommunications because the former IAS officer, Wharton School of Business and IIT Kanpur alumnus is known to have proficiency in these areas. Hardeep Singh Puri, who retained the housing and urban affairs portfolio, was given additional charge of the petroleum ministry because of his background in the foreign service, which may come in handy while negotiating major oil deals. Former Assam chief minister Sonowal has become the minister for ports, shipping and waterways, given the importance of waterways trade between India and Bangladesh. He has also been given charge of the Ayush ministry because of his interest in the subject and the potential the Northeast has for Ayush. Bhupender Yadav is the new minister for environment, forest and climate change with additional charge of the labour and employment ministry. There seems no connection between the two, except that both ministries have plenty of regulatory laws and Yadav is a lawyer.
Modi’s third major imperative was to give his government a pro-poor and inclusive image. So, in addition to the new cabinet ministers, 26 other fresh faces were made ministers of state. The new inductions have a decided tilt towards the other backward classes and the scheduled castes and tribes. In all, Modi’s cabinet now has 27 OBCs, 12 SCs and 8 STs, who account for 60 per cent of the total 78 ministers. Political compulsions have also been heeded to boost the party’s chances in the six states going to the elections in 2022: Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Gujarat. For instance, three of the seven new Union ministers from UP are from the OBC category, meant to assuage the leaders who have been complaining about being sidelined. The SCs have received widespread representation, including Shantanu Thakur from West Bengal, A. Narayanaswamy from Karnataka, L. Murugan from Tamil Nadu, and Sunita Duggal from Haryana. With Gujarat going to the polls in December 2022, Rupala and Mandaviya have been elevated to cabinet rank while Darshana Jardosh, Devusinh Chauhan and Dr Mahendrabhai Munjpara have become ministers of state.
The fourth objective of Modi’s mega cabinet makeover was to ensure the BJP’s allies in the NDA government were rewarded for their support while sending a strong message to its rivals. Former Shiv Sena chief minister Narayan Rane, who had defected to the BJP, therefore, was given charge of the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) ministry. The move is meant to signal to the Sena that the BJP will not be joining hands with it to form a government in Maharashtra in the near future. The BJP has also ensured its other allies in Bihar have been given berths. Ramchandra Prasad Singh, the national president of the Janata Dal (United), is the new steel minister. Pashupati Paras of the Lok Janshakti Party, who ousted nephew Chirag Paswan as party president, is now the food processing industries minister. Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal, another ally, is the MoS for commerce and industry. Modi has also addressed regional and state expectations. The northeastern states, for instance, now have two cabinet ministers and three junior ministers, the highest representation they have had in recent years.
The fifth and final aim of Modi’s cabinet revamp is to build a second generation of leaders who are in their 50s and early 60s to take over in the future. Forty-four of the 78 ministers in the cabinet now are below 60. Karnataka’s Sushri Shobha Karandlaje, 54, an acolyte of state chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, is one such leader. Jyotiraditya Scindia, 50, is being built as a successor to Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh. The promotion of Mandaviya, 49, and the important portfolios he has been given, make him a contender for future leadership in Gujarat. Anurag Thakur, 46, is seen as a potential chief minister in Himachal Pradesh. The elevation of G. Kishan Reddy, 57, an influential Reddy leader from Telangana, to cabinet rank has been done with an eye to gaining a strong foothold for the 2023 assembly election. Efforts have also been made to bring in more educated ministers. Over 95 per cent of the new inductees are graduates, with four of them having doctorates, three MBA qualifications, and seven postgraduate degrees. Also included are four doctors and two former IAS officers.
Overall, the cabinet reset is intended to ensure speedy and transparent delivery of the government’s development programmes, much faster economic recovery and expansion and more inclusive, balanced representation and growth. A much-needed cabinet reshuffle, it still has plenty of scope for improvement. Especially in further rationalising portfolio allocation. While all the ministers will no doubt function under Modi’s shadow, it is important they are more visible and vocal about their work. Each one needs to be a champion of their ministry if Modi’s mega makeover is to achieve its objectives.
1. ANURAG THAKUR | Information & Broadcasting; Sports & Youth Affairs
Reason: A close confidant of Amit Shah. His elevation may take him away from Himachal politics, easing up Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur’s problems.
2. RAJ KUMAR SINGH | Power; New & Renewable Energy
Reason: In the absence of Radha Mohan Singh and Rajiv Pratap Rudy in the cabinet, he is emerging as the BJP’s new Thakur face from Bihar. With ally JD(U) bringing in R.C.P. Singh, another bureaucrat-turned-politician from his community, R.K. Singh’s elevation had become necessary for the BJP.
3. G. KISHAN REDDY | Culture; Tourism; Development of North Eastern Region
Reason: The party’s face in Telangana where the BJP has expansion plans. Has ABVP background. His elevation is expected to help woo ex-ABVP leaders in the TDP, TRS and Congress in Telangana to the BJP.
4. PARSHOTTAM RUPALA | Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying
Reason: A prominent Patel leader from Gujarat and a performer. His promotion is a reachout to the community still jittery over the quota issue.
5. MANSUKH L. MANDAVIYA | Health & Family Welfare; Chemicals & Fertilisers
Reason: A performer who executed reforms in ports and shipping as MoS (independent charge). During the second Covid wave, he was among the ministers tasked with augmenting manufacturing/ import of critical drugs and oxygen imports.
6. HARDEEP SINGH PURI | Petroleum & Natural Gas; Housing & Urban Affairs
Reason: He pushed the Central Vista and new Parliament project. The only Sikh face in the Modi government, his rise is crucial to attract urban Sikh voters in Punjab and Delhi.
7. KIREN RIJIJU | Law & Justice
Reason: Performed as MoS Home. He is the party’s Buddhist and Northeast face
1. RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD | Telecom, MeitY, Law & Justice
Reason: The PM wanted fresh talent for MeitY and telecom, party wanted a heavyweight for organisational work
Future: May be assigned a party role
2. PRAKASH JAVADEKAR | Environment, Forest & Climate Change; Heavy Industries; Information & Broadcasting
Reason: Required for organisational work, may get other responsibilities
Future: May get role in party
3. THAWARCHAND GEHLOT | Social Justice & Empowerment
Reason: Nearing unofficial retirement age of 75
Future: Appointed Karnataka governor
4. SANTOSH GANGWAR | Labour & Employment
Reason: Nearing unofficial retirement age of 75. Party wasn’t happy with his handling of the labour migration crisis during the 2020 lockdown
5. HARSH VARDHAN | Health
Reason: Poor handling of the Covid second wave, including treatment and availability of healthcare facili- ties, medicines and vital equipment
Future: May be asked to mentor BJP’s Delhi unit for forthcoming corporation polls
6. RAMESH POKHRIYAL | Education
Reason: Slow in getting New Education Policy implemented. His ill health is also cited.
Future: May return to state politics
7. D.V. SADANANDA GOWDA | Chemicals & Fertilisers
Reason: Lacklustre performance, achievements few
Future: May return to Karnataka politics
1. NARAYAN RANE | MSME
Reason: Former Maharashtra CM and Konkan leader. His entry may rule out any BJP-Shiv Sena deal in the state
2. ASHWINI VAISHNAW | Railways; Communication; Electronics & IT
Reason: PM Modi’s backroom boy. A former bureaucrat with RSS background. Was personal secretary to former PM Vajpayee
3. SARBANANDA SONOWAL | Ports, Shipping & Waterways
Reason: Former Assam CM who accepted the party’s decision to hand over the reins to Himanta Biswa Sarma in the state
4. JYOTIRADITYA SCINDIA | Civil Aviation
Reason: Defected from the Congress in 2020 along with loyalists. His entry into BJP shook the Rahul Gandhi camp
5. BHUPENDER YADAV | Environment, Forest & Climate Change; Labour & Employment
Reason: Amit Shah confidant, was a contender for the BJP chief’s post along with J.P. Nadda. Organisation man, worked in RSS affiliates
6. PASHUPATI KUMAR PARAS | Food Processing Industries
Reason: Staged a coup against nephew Chirag Paswan to take control of the LJP. The BJP’s ally in Bihar has a 4 per cent vote share, especially among Dalits
7. VIRENDRA KUMAR | Social Justice
Reason: BJP’s Dalit face and seniormost parliamentarian. He is expected to fill the space left by Thawarchand Gehlot’s exit from active politics
8. RAMCHANDRA PRASAD SINGH | Steel
Reason: JD(U) boss Nitish Kumar’s confidant. The party refused to join the Modi cabinet in the past, but lost bargaining power after the 2020 assembly poll.