Sunday’s Cabinet reshuffle had an interesting twist on how Prime Minister Narendra Modi converted a problem into an opportunity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aided by his trusted lieutenant and BJP chief Amit Shah, is known to convert problems or crises into opportunities. And the buzz in Delhi proves the point.
Modi was desperate to relieve Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of the additional heavyweight Defence portfolio he was holding. The only defence he was doing was poorly defending the economy’s performance. And because he was overburdened, he was not doing justice to either of the portfolios.
But there was a problem. Nobody wanted to handle Defence. Initially the portfolio was offered to Nitin Gadkari. He quietly told the PM that defence was not his cup of tea.
Gadkari was then offered the Railways portfolio. But with the micro-management in Railways becoming impossible, Gadkari was not willing to stick his neck out. Any accident, he would be pushed into the limelight by the Opposition.
The next choice was Piyush Goyal, a high-performer in the Modi cabinet. He too was not keen on defence.
That was when Modi and Shah hit upon the idea of converting a problem into an opportunity and a talking point of Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle. They dialled Nirmala Sitharaman and told to take over Defence. She was speechless, according to sources. That she was surprised was obvious in her reaction later when she attributed the selection as Defence Minister to `cosmic grace.’
This move was a masterstroke by Modi-Shah combine. One, it sends out a huge message to the women in India; secondly, Modi’s core group comprising the cabinet committee on security will have two able women – Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman; third, Nirmala Sitharaman becomes the first full-fledged woman Defence Minister of India; fourth, she is known to be without blemish and a person of high integrity. That is what is crucial before the BJP goes to polls in 2019. A scam in the defence ministry is something that Modi would want to avoid. Nirmala Sitharaman can assure that.
Her appointment is also with an eye on Tamil Nadu where the BJP is trying to get a toe-hold. And with this one master-stroke, the entire talking point was not on how Modi was saddled by non-performers who were shown the door, but on how Nirmala Sitharaman got an important portfolio.
Modi’s next message was important as well. He sent out a subtle message that just because one is a party MP, it does not give an automatic ticket to ministership. What is important is high level performance and Modi has to show tangible results in the next 15 months. He can no longer harp on demonetisation or the GDP; or for that matter employment or factory output. All these factors are in deep deep red.
Tangible results can be delivered only by men who have proved their mettle. That is why he inducted 4 high performing former bureaucrats into the ministry, shedding caste or poll considerations.
The PM is a strong believer that former bureaucrats who have had their baptism by fire by handling tough assignments for nearly 40 years can pull the government out of its present mess. As CM of Gujarat, Modi had depended on seasoned and high performing bureaucrats to deliver. He is now repeating the formula in Delhi as PM. He is not ready to give an inch, let alone a portfolio to non-performers despite their political weight or stature.
Modi’s trust on bureaucrats is well known. When he became PM, he brought in his trusted aide PK Mishra from Ahmedabad and made him additional principal secretary to PM. And then he brought in retired bureaucrat Nripendra Mishra through an ordinance to make him his Principal Secretary.
So, in the new-look Modi Cabinet, bureaucrats would handle important portfolios. Hardeep Singh Puri, a former diplomat who retired as India’s permanent representative to the UN, gets independent charge of the ministry of housing and urban affairs. Alphons Kannanthanam, popularly known as Delhi’s ‘Demolition Man’ gets independent charge of tourism. Satya Pal Singh, the former police commissioner of Mumbai is the new minister of state in the Human Resources Development and water resources ministries and RK Singh, former home secretary gets independent charge of power, energy and renewable resources (a post held by Piyush Goyal).
Modi has also hit up a good combine for delivering results if not Acche Din. It is the all-powerful PMO that runs the country, not Modi’s Cabinet colleagues. Now he has brought in four ex-bureaucrats which will make the synergy between the PMO and various key ministries easier.
But he has not sidelined political performers. Piyush Goyal got a promotion and the important Railways portfolio. Dharmendra Pradhan is the new Cabinet Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas; and Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. He is from Odisha which will go to polls soon. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who also got promoted is the new Cabinet Minister of Minority Affairs.
The Modi-Shah combine has also factored in states going to the polls over the next year. So Odisha gets Dharmendra Pradhan, Karnataka gets Anant Hegde and Rajasthan gets Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who hails from Jodhpur, which is the home turf of Congress leader Ashok Gehlot.
Just imagine if it was the Congress party at the centre. The PM would have absolutely no say. A list would be shoved into his hands by the party president. She and her close aides would do the selection based on caste and vote banks, not performance. Rahul Gandhi is `somewhere abroad’ according to some spokespersons on TV debates even as the Congress seems tired and burnt up.
On such an important day, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tweeted not about the Cabinet reshuffle, but Onam!!.