Posted by: John Elliott | July 9, 2021

Modi reshuffles his cabinet, looking for a reboot

Health minister replaced by follower of ayurvedic medicine

IT minister Prasad’s dismissal will be welcomed abroad

Narendra Modi has reshuffled his Cabinet and other ministers with moves that are as signficant for those he has sacked as it is for those he has appointed.

The top posts of finance, foreign affairs, defence and home are unchanged, but key portfolios of health, information-technology, communications, law, information and the environment have the most important dismissals along with labour and education – and a high profile defector from the Congress Party has been rewarded.

Amit Shah, India’s tough Home Minister and arch-Hindu nationalist, has strangely also been given the job of heading a new Ministry of Cooperation – dealing with co-operative based development – that looks like controversially invading state governments’ responsibilities.

Prime Minister Modi and President Kovind with the new ministers

The reshuffle, announced on Wednesday night (July 7), comes at a time when the government’s image is low after its mishandling of the second phase of the Covid pandemic, which had disastrous effects on millions of people. 

Modi will be hoping to deflect criticism of his prime ministership by producing a sea of new and reshuffled faces that will enable his government to recover lost ground. He has also accommodated politicians from states facing assembly elections, and from various castes, in order to show that their interests are being catered for by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies.

Some ministers have been removed for under-performing, others for being too abrasive.

Harsh Vardhan declaring in March the “end-game” for Covid 19

Predictably sacked is the health minister, Harsh Vardhan. He is taking the blame for the mishandling the pandemic, though Modi was responsible for not acting quickly enough in April and May when the current surge was building up.

Regarded as a good doctor, Vardhan sometimes seemed out of his depth. He made the unforgiveable mistake in March of saying that India was “in the end-game of the Covid-19 pandemic”, just as it was becoming clear that it was not. A change was clearly needed, even though Vardhan seemed in awe of Modi and is unlikely to have done, or not done, anything that the prime minister did not condone.

His successor, Mansukh Mandaviya, was previously a junior minister for shipping, ports and chemicals, and is a believer in ayurvedic medicine. He has also been given charge of the chemicals ministry, to improve co-ordination on vaccines and other supplies, so his interest in non-western medicine could be significant.

Ashwini Vaishnaw takes oath as a Cabinet Minister

 “Ayurveda is a great gift from India to world. The more you let Ayurveda & Yoga become basis for your living, the easier it gets!” he wrote on Twitter three years ago. “Where Allopathy fails, Ayurveda-the science of life, is an answer,” he tweeted in 2015.

The main ministerial dismissal that might ease relations with foreign investors concerns Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has lost his two jobs as minister for communications, electronics and information technology, and for law.

He has taken tough uncompromising stands with foreign companies for several years, initially when he was telecommunications minister and more recently with social media, notably Facebook and WhatsApp. In the past few weeks he has had a confrontation with Twitter over the supremacy of India’s laws and new information technology regulations.

Grandstanding

Prasad has seemed to revel in turning consultations into grandstanding confrontations, especially where foreign companies are involved, presumably believing that was in line with his party’s Hindu nationalism. “His repeated mockery of the foreign tech giants made them dig in as well – at its heart was the belief that if China can outlaw Google, why shouldn’t India give Big Tech a hard time,” says a Delhi analyst.

His successor at the information and technology ministry is Ashwini Vaishnaw, who has also been given the charge of railways. A former civil servant and businessman who worked in the office of former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has made it clear the line will not change. “Everyone will have to follow law of the country,” he said when asked about the Twitter case, but he is expected to be less confrontational.

Departing ministers: Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad

Also dismissed is Prakash Javadekar as minister both for information and broadcasting and for the environment. Given the government’s problems in recent months, and the way that Modi and Shah personally dominate the media headlines, it was unlikely that any information minister could have done the job successfully.

The Congress defector is Jyotiraditya Scindia, a minister in an earlier Congress government, who has been made minister of aviation with a seat in the cabinet. He was a close ally and aide to Rahul Gandhi, the former party president, but joined the BJP a year ago because he felt he was being under-valued in his role as a leading Madhya Pradesh politician.

Modi has kept him waiting for a job, but the fact that he has been given a significant post – his father ran the same ministry in a Congress government 30 years ago – may encourage other Congress politicians to leave their largely-ineffectual party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia with Narendra Modi

His main task will be to handle the latest, and so far unsuccessful, attempt to privatise Air India. The government has said the alternative will be to close the airline. 

Other changes include Piyush Goyal, the commerce, industry and consumer affairs minister, taking over the textiles ministry but handing railways to Vaishnaw. Hardeep Singh Puri, a former top diplomat who is minister for housing and urban affairs has also been put in charge of petroleum and natural gas, has given up aviation to Scindia. The new law minister is Kiren Rijiju, a lawyer who has been sports minister and was earlier at the home ministry.

On paper, the changes look promising with new often younger ministers taking up prominent posts, some straddling more than one ministry to improve coordination. For real progress however, Modi needs to de-centralise his control of the government and give ministers – who have all praised his vision and leadership – the self-confidence and freedom to run their own areas.


Responses

  1. Wish the ministerial changes will change governance, mindset. There is zero governance maximum government. Highly unlikely anything will change. Private sector will see to it nothing changes.


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