It was instructive to observe media reports and debates (TV, print and digital) ahead of the major Union Cabinet overhaul that took place on 7 July. Journalists, commentators and the talking heads were clueless. The contrast with the UPA years, when a reporter’s clout depended on getting the predictions right, couldn’t have been greater.
Leave alone suggesting that the prime minister could replace any of the senior ministers — telecom, law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar, health minister Harsh Vardhan, education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, chemicals and fertilizers minister Sadananda Gowda and labour minister Santosh Gangwar — there was zero credible, prior information on the larger expansion and reshuffling until the actors themselves made the announcements.
Eventually, Narendra Modi dropped 12 ministers, inducted 36 fresh faces into the council including seven women, promoted seven junior ministers to independent or Cabinet ranks and shuffled portfolios like a deck of cards. Not since the Kamraj plan of 1963 has such a major culling of Cabinet-rank ministers taken place.
Why is this instructive? It tells us about the resilience of the paradigm that Modi and Amit Shah had introduced in 2014 where even seven years down the line, power broking from the corridors remains banished and ‘access journalism’ next to impossible. The prime minister runs a tight ship. This, however, cuts both ways. Just as media has become disenfranchised as a power broker, the ministers who had a symbiotic relationship with the media in furthering their interests in earlier regimes, cannot do so anymore.
Under the new normal, media popularity or even visibility is no guarantee for career enhancement. Conversely, there is an equal amount of chance for those leaders who are loyal, diligent, hardworking and stay away from the media limelight. This explains the multiplicity of leaders and technocrats who were plucked from obscurity to be thrown into the deep end of responsibility and the stress on technocratic efficiency of the new team where a number of domain experts have found space.
Just as the media was blindsided ahead of the expansion, it remains equally mystified by the changes that took place. Most of the commentaries since have relied on tired old tropes and heuristic analyses frozen since the 1990s. Those that cannot be readily explained through these tools have been called “surprising”. A lack of effort to understand the new politics ushered in by Modi-led BJP has been evident. Some have seen it as an effort to win the 2024 battle, while some have suggested that the changes were done to protect ‘Brand Modi’ while some have called it mere “perception management”.
The obsessive need to interpret every action taken by the BJP government at the Centre as “image management” overlooks the importance of politics of performance and the central role it plays in Modi’s legitimacy. This is where Modi’s political opponents and a section of the media have consistently failed to understand his electoral appeal. The prime minister’s mandates in 2014 and 2019 cannot be satisfactorily explained only through the prisms of social engineering, Hindutva politics or perception management.
Take, for instance, tap water connections. When it was launched in 2019 by Modi as Jal Jeevan Mission under the Jal Shakti ministry, out of 18.94 crore rural households in the country, only 3.23 crore (17 percent) had tap water connections. On Wednesday, the ministry announced that in 23 months, the initiative has provided 4.49 crore tap water connections in 1 lakh villages and 50,000 gram panchayats across India (40.77 percent). Urban residents may not understand the full import of this transformative change, but Modi is creating political capital.
Or take UPI, the digital payments interface that has seen huge private participation and ushered in a similar transformative change in the Indian economy. “In 2021 alone, Indians have made 37.90 billion digital transactions, an increase of 27.9 billion from 2016, the year UPI was launched, when around 10 billion transactions were made,” reports Financial Express.
Similarly, the CoWin platform, through which India has administered more than 350 million doses of covid vaccines till last week, has elicited interest from more than 50 countries across Central Asia, Latin America and Africa and the prime minister have since announced that it will be made into an open-source platform.
It is silly to call these actions “politically motivated” because democracy incentivizes politics of performance. Execution of schemes that benefit the public is a legitimate method of gaining support in democratic political systems. By that token, the prime minister knows that he must deliver and must be seen as delivering performative politics and good governance to mitigate the challenges that have emerged due to a once-in-a-century pandemic.
As Chanakya writes in Hindustan Times, “the government has faced its most serious erosion of credibility in the past year, with simultaneous national security, public health and economic crises. The mismanagement of the second wave affected, in varying degrees, the trust in the PM himself. And while social engineering has its place, the party leadership knows that performance, the perception of good performance, and a turnaround on tangible metrics are crucial to change the narrative.”
One of the key mistakes that critics and Modi’s political opponents make is to perceive his governance style as episodic — as if Modi lurches from one election to the next, one crisis to the next — whereas the prime minister looks at policymaking and governance as a continuous process. However, Modi is not oblivious to political narratives either, otherwise, his instinct would have been that of a bureaucrat, not a political leader.
Modi understands the power of narratives better than his peers, and a combination of these factors led to the axing of some of the senior ministers of his Cabinet — at the risk of Modi making himself vulnerable to political attacks.
Many commentators and leaders of the Opposition have pointed out that Harsh Vardhan’s removal signifies that he was “victimized” and that the government was admitting to failing to contain the pandemic.
These are legitimate charges, and the narrative that Modi government “failed to contain the pandemic” has been given a second wind with the health minister’s removal. This raises a question why the government, that has staunchly defended its actions even at the height of the second wave, took such a step that is tantamount to admitting its failure? For Modi, this was a necessary compromise.
The second wave led by a virulent Delta variant has spared no one, and India is not alone in submitting to its ravages. Latest reports say Indonesia has surpassed India as the epicenter of Covid and daily numbers there are much higher compared to India’s. In the first week of July, more than 60 patients died in Indonesia in one day due to the lack of oxygen. Indonesia would have noted India’s difficulties with the Delta variant and got ample time to prepare itself but is still struggling to cope with the crisis.
The UK, a much smaller nation that has done well in vaccinating its citizens, is now bracing for another wave post unlock. UK health secretary Sajid Javid warned that cases could rise up to 100,000 per day after restrictions are lifted on 19 July, reports Times of India.
These instances tell us that India could have done precious little to arrest the surge in cases and in fact has done quite well in vaccinating its people so far, though it still has a long way to go to meet its target of inoculating all adult citizens by 2021.
However, though the narrative that India “failed to contain the pandemic” is debatable, the lived experiences of the victims are not. Modi is aware that the pandemic has caused an erosion of trust in the government, and instead of an academic or a political debate over whether the government could have done better, he must move to address that trust deficit. The removal of Harsh Vardhan, or labour minister Gangwar who has been blamed for the plight of migrant workers, is aimed at addressing that challenge. This is not necessarily a punitive move.
The installation of Bhupender Yadav in place of Gangwar, or Mansukh Mandaviya as the new health minister — younger in age and experience but seen as competent — is expected to instill fresh energy, address the trust deficit and make it tougher for the Opposition to weaponize during elections the woes caused by the pandemic.
It has been reported that Pokhriyal’s indifferent health could be a reason behind his replacement, but Ravi Shankar Prasad’s axing requires a better explanation. It is misleading to suggest that Prasad paid the price for taking on US-based social media giants — he was merely trying to implement government policies and countering the challenge to India’s sovereignty posed by Twitter.
Worth noting that as soon as Ashwini Vaishnaw, the new minister for electronics and information technology, took charge, he reiterated his predecessor’s position that “law of land is supreme, Twitter must follow the rules”.
The government is obviously not backing down. Why, then, was Prasad removed? It seems to me that the problem lay in the daily controversies surrounding the former minister who got embroiled in high-profile media debates with Twitter and generated more noise when his account was temporarily blocked. The incidents led Modi government being portrayed as ‘authoritarian yet powerless’. That ostensibly wasn’t the message that the prime minister wanted to send.
Modi is averse to media and prefers an image of ‘silent yet strong’ and in Vaishnaw, a 1994-batch IAS officer, an IIT and Wharton alumnus who has held leadership positions across global companies such as General Electric, he may have found the candidate more suited to his style.
The assessment will remain incomplete if the Cabinet reshuffle is not interpreted as a fine balance between being responsive to feedback, inclusivity, political imperatives, addressing governance deficit, political signaling, risk-and-reward system and party-building effort that it is meant to be.
The announcement of the expansion followed a breakup of the new appointees, and the government took pain to point out how, through the induction of 27 ministers representing other backward castes (OBCs) including five in Cabinet rank, the Modi government has put in place perhaps India’s most inclusive government ever.
According to a government release that was picked up by the media, the cabinet has a big Dalit and OBC imprint with ministers representing various castes including Yadav, Gurjar, Jat, Thakor, Lodh etc., minorities like Sikh and Muslims across the length and breadth of the country including from north-east. It is a testimony to our pathetic record that in Kiren Rijiju, India has the first minister of Union Cabinet rank from a state as important and sensitive as Arunachal Pradesh.
The inclusions of Narayan Rane and Jyotiraditya Scindia exemplify the risk-and-reward system while the investment in a cache of talented young leaders, including a number of women, reflect the BJP’s party-building efforts with an eye on the future. On Wednesday, Tejasvi Surya, the president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), BJP’s youth wing, announced a new team and the appointment of several office-bearers “towards nation building & strengthening BJP at the grassroots level.”
— Tejasvi Surya (@Tejasvi_Surya) July 14, 2021
This indicates the party is focused on developing the next generation. With an inclusive and representative government in place and efforts towards grooming second, third and fourth rung of leaders, the BJP appears well-poised to strengthen in footprint. The Cabinet expansion is just one piece in that puzzle.