As the first non-Congress-headed coalition takes charge for a second, full consecutive term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made clear the direction in which he would lead the government with his selection of ministers.
Amit Shah, an extension of Modi
The most significant statement made through these selections is that of BJP president Amit Shah as the country’s new home minister. Rajnath Singh’s tenure in the previous dispensation had been remarkable, especially in containing terrorism. He is strangely an unsung hero not being credited by the mainstream commentariat for not allowing terrorists to strike beyond the troubled Jammu and Kashmir. However, he has also left behind an unfinished task.
The clampdown on dubious foreign-funded NGOs was much-needed, but wielding the stick of the law for FCRA violation alone was not enough to defang the international mafia, the impact of which is felt in politics as well as the judiciary. Shah has this task cut out where he must figure out a way to restrict the participation of NGOs in elections by proxy through their heads and workers. With Shah’s authoritarian streak and reputation of an intelligent, hard taskmaster, traits that are useful for a job as that of the home minister, it should not be difficult. More so because looking at him as Modi’s ‘right-hand man’ would be an understatement. He is a separate physical manifestation of Modi himself.
Defence: Faster procurements, please
A man of consensus, Singh will be watched as the new defence minister. Fast procurement of essential weaponry is an issue that continues to plague the ministry even as Modi thumbed the arms dealer’s nose with his government-to-government contract with France for the Rafale fighter planes.
Singh is expected to continue with the rapport Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman had established with the service chiefs.
Jaishankar: More than a has-been diplomat
The second most significant choice after Shah is that of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a former diplomat pressed into the external affairs ministry hardly 16 months after his retirement.
Modi’s steering of the foreign policy in the past five years has been remarkable, but then, if he was accused of touring the world a bit too often, it’s the structure of the foreign service that is to blame. Career diplomats are infamous for status quo. Left to them, India’s relations with Israel could not have improved by leaps and bounds. Modi’s tightrope walk on the relations with China was as much beyond India’s foreign mission in Beijing. The utterly silly act of supplying Pakistan with dossier after dossier to establish evidence of its involvement in the 26/11 attack, which the UPA II government did, had to change to a more robust response like the maudlin Aman ki Asha — aka Track II diplomacy — giving way to no dialogue with the sponsor of terror.
Jaishankar raises hope because of the stern attitude towards China during the Doklam stand-off. To that extent, he is not a run-of-the-mill IFS. He inherits the tact and wisdom of the venerable K Subrahmanyam, his late father. He could be flexible in scenarios like striking the India-US civilian nuclear deal.
Why can’t Sitharaman be looked up to as Shourie was?
Nirmala Sitharaman as the finance minister comes as no surprise. Any other MP in her place whose mainstay has not been economics (despite her education in the subject) would not have been surprising either. While Arun Jaitley was the face of the finance ministry in the last five years, there was a visible stamp of Modi on all schemes and budgetary announcements. That will continue, with Sitharaman just fulfilling the formality of filling a post that deserves a full-time minister. However, it would be unjust to brand the learned lady as a rubber stamp. Snobs must be asked why she shouldn’t get the respect that Arun Shourie used to command under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, given the similarity in backgrounds.
Jaitley handled the ministry quite efficiently, leaving the legacy of the IBC and a GST that undergoes repeated downward revisions to boost the market. However, one thought Jaitley was often unduly cautious, which might be a temperament he acquired as a lawyer. His extreme circumspection did render the economy a tad slow. Sitharaman must make sure, provided the prime minister permits, that reforms, as and when they take place, are big-ticket. Incrementalism does not make anyone, least of all the poor, feel their lives have changed.
Modi may be the first prime minister in a long time who endears to the poor, but sooner or later they must be told that, with their increasing empowerment through the welfare schemes, they must also develop the “give-up” spirit of the middle class, which benefited them with schemes like Ujjwala. As and when a poor citizen beats poverty, he must give up subsidies that burden the economy.
It is understood that a Modi dispensation would not touch privatisation with a barge pole, no matter how much it is required to bring in efficiency, accountability and affordability. Its “strategic” stakes sale is a joke where a healthy PSU buys out a sick one, keeping the burden on the taxpayer intact and affecting the healthy PSU too. It is here that Sitharaman needs to display the courage of a Shourie without repeating the mistake of Vajpayee of not convincing the poor it is necessary and also good for them.
Modi does not care for HRD
Human resource development remains a non-priority area, unfortunately, for Narendra Modi who, after promising to transform India in 2014, neglected the most essential pillar of transformation that builds the future of the country. Neither the highhandedness of Smriti Irani nor the inertia or inhibition of Prakash Javadekar was warranted. If Irani picked fights even with pro-BJP professors in universities, Javadekar infamously declared that the government hadn’t changed even a comma in the existing curricula. India needed a visionary like Murli Manohar Joshi under Vajpayee who would be more practical than Joshi, of course. The politically motivated history imparted to the students of the country by quasi-communist teachers must change.
It is possible that Modi did not want to open yet another frontier of contention after the bogey of intolerance that the left, shorn of corroborative statistics, raised throughout the first innings of the prime minister. But then, a Yellapragada Sudershan Rao picked for the Indian Council of Historical Research did not totally rule out that dispute. What Indian history education needs is not a right-wing pamphlet to replace the left-wing propaganda. What no sane citizen will object to is depoliticisation of the subject by way of handing relevant departments over to scholars like those of the generation of RC Majumdar or Jadunath Sarkar. One seriously doubts Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank has that as part of his agenda or mandate from the prime minister.
A rather odd thing done in the field of HRD during the previous term was the reduction in the subsidy for IIT education. While ideally no course of higher education must be subsidised for the simple reason that it’s the top of the pyramid while the bottom, primary education, remains out of reach for many among the poor, Modi must be asked why the IIT was singled out for ‘punishment’ while letting off the humanities stream that has done little for the country other than activism — including of the JNU brand, which was a more effective opposition in the past five years than Rahul Gandhi-led Congress, uniting all anti-government forces under one umbrella. Not only on the campuses but also in the judiciary!
Further, the government must be asked what the justification of the subsidy of Rs 12 lakh per student of the FTII per annum is. Is it a government’s job to teach a handful of people how to make films?
Gadkari: Trusted because he delivers
Nitin Gadkari has been another achiever in the “New India” story. No wonder, he retains part of the portfolios he had during the past five years. The opposition, with the help of a gullible section of BJP supporters, had tried to drive a wedge between him and the prime minister when they orchestrated a whisper campaign that suggested he would make a better prime minister after the Lok Sabha election, where they did not expect the ruling party to re-emerge stronger with a score of 303. That scheme of the opposition failed, and Gadkari continues to be one of the ministers who, Modi is sure, will deliver.
A problem with Piyush Goyal
During the last government, every time a Cabinet reshuffle was on the cards or Jaitley fell ill, a section of the government’s supporters, as well as one of its detractors, lobbied for (or expected) Piyush Goyal to turn a full-time finance minister. He got it part-time at best during the presentation of the last Budget. Worse, at least once, he appeared to have been demoted despite his much-touted achievement in making electricity reach every nook and corner of the country.
As Goyal continues with efficiency in the railways, he must tell his fans not to celebrate him. ‘The boss’ construes that as lobbying and disapproves of it.
The names need not be mentioned because the media still has not been handed the evidence in support of the allegation, which is right now doing the rounds of the BJP rank and file. A relatively young minister in the previous government was dropped this time, sources say, after being caught “flirting” with one or more journalists on messaging application WhatsApp.
A relatively older one was hamhanded in his dealings with the bureaucracy.
An MoS was caught using his corporate connections to lobby against his senior.
And then, the lieutenants of LK Advani, half of whom had switched camps wisely in 2013-14, have been phased out.
Conclusion: A new definition of meritocracy
It would be surprising if a renowned economist became the finance minister, an educationist the human resource development minister, a soldier the defence minister, so on and so forth. Modi made it clear in 2014 that is not how he allocates portfolios. Meritocracy to him is based not on university certificates but on one’s record as an executor of his ideas.
If the government alone (without the organisation of the BJP) is considered, it saw a departure in the hierarchy during the first term of Modi. Traditionally, the home minister is No. 2 in the government. But for all practical purposes, Jaitley wielded more power than Singh. Now, the other power centre Shah occupies home, reducing the multiplicity of authority. History can remember him as the strongest home minister India has ever had if he proves as efficient in dealing with bureaucrats as he has been in his treatment of the party cadre.
That brings us to the merit of the IAS and the rest of the bureaucracy. While Modi turned them punctual, the prime minister couldn’t quite rein in their mischievous ways like one ministry filing affidavits against another in the domestic circuit and deliberately maintaining the status quo in foreign affairs (like voting against Israel), knowing fully well their present political masters’ ideology does not suit the Nehruvian position. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be free to define “merit” of ministers on the basis of their track record rather than university degrees. He cannot be but allowed to maintain the British-era ICS-turned-IAS, which, since its inception, was designed to keep citizens subjugated.
A confrontation is also merited with the judiciary. Many of the judgments by no less than the Supreme Court in the recent past have been in areas that either it has no principled mandate to interfere in (like Sabarimala) or in areas that made it look downright silly (like trying to fix the BCCI). If the NJAC could not see the light of the day under the previous government, Modi should have been relentless in its pursuit. Why does he not start it all over again?