Modi government 2.0: Key Takeaways
From signs of a hardline approach to the infusion of expertise in the government, the new Cabinet is a mixed bag.
The composition of the Narendra Modi government’s second council of ministers was shrouded in mystery till the council of ministers took oath on Thursday evening.
And the distribution of the portfolios was also not known till the official Rashtrapati Bhawan Communique was issued on Friday afternoon.
The allocation of portfolios does not form a clear pattern but there are a few key takeaways.
1. The induction of BJP president Amit Shah as India’s Home Minister is perhaps the most ominous of the decisions. Known for making hard-line statements on Kashmir and illegal immigration from Bangladesh – and having been into a running feud with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after the violence that rocked his road show in Kolkata during the election campaign – all eyes will be on Shah to see how he runs the Ministry.
The Central Police Organisations and Delhi Police will now be under him. The central forces, like CRPF, are deployed in large numbers in trouble-torn Kashmir and the BSF guards all borders, including the Bangladesh border.
There has been a spike in violence in Kashmir over the last five years, with increased instances of stone-pelting, militancy and also attacks on security forces. While tourism had been picking up earlier, the last few years have been stressful, with a raging debate on whether aggressive action by security forces or engagement with all stakeholders is a better policy.
Many believe that Shah’s elevation is a sign of a hawkish policy vis-à-vis both Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to allow “persecuted minorities” from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to be considered eligible to become citizens.
2. In a sign that career expertise is to be acknowledged in steering the country’s foreign policy, former Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar has been made the External Affairs Minister. An experienced career diplomat, Jaishankar has served in China and the US, and was also involved in the crafting of the Indo-US nuclear deal. While his induction seems aimed at infusing expertise and wide global experience and networks in foreign policy, it remains to be seen how autonomously he can work. In the last five years, the Prime Minister himself steered foreign policy, with then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj performing more of the role the Overseas Indian Affairs Minister used to do years back. She would respond to complaints from Indians in trouble abroad, in other words.
3. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has got a new minister in Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank. He starts controversially in his new office, as news reports are doing the rounds that he had said, in 2014, that “science is a dwarf in front of astrology”. The Hindu quoted him as saying, “Astrology is the biggest science. It is above science. We should promote it. We talk about nuclear science today. But Sage Kanad conducted a nuclear test one lakh years ago.”
The Modi government’s first HRD minister Smriti Irani remained controversial from the beginning. Some of the controversies died down when Prakash Javadekar was made HRD minister. However, the CBSE paper leak and the status of institution of eminence to Jio Institute, which existed only on paper, attracted sharp criticism.
4. Nirmala Sitharaman, who was promoted to the position of Defence Minister in the first Modi government, has got another promotion. She is now Finance Minister, holding the crucial responsibility of steering the Indian economy at a time when many economists have raised questions regarding its performance. Sitharaman had mounted a spirited defence of the PM in Parliament when the Rafale deal was being discussed.
5. Despite defeating Congress president Rahul Gandhi from the Nehru-Gandhi stronghold Amethi, Smriti Irani has not really been offered a promotion. She retains the Ministry of Textiles and has also been given the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which was with Maneka Gandhi earlier. The two ministries are not seen by those in power corridors as particularly heavy-weight assignments.
6. While ministers like Nitin Gadkari, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Thaawarchand Gehlot and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi retain their portfolios, those like Rajnath Singh and Prakash Javadekar have had their portfolios changed. Singh is Defence Minister now, while Javadekar is in charge of the Ministries of Environment and Information and Broadcasting.
7. Manning the Defence Ministry now, Rajnath Singh remains the only BJP leader of national prominence at the Centre a decade back to still retain his position. Even Nitin Gadkari, who retains the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and also heads the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, came to the helm in the central BJP only in 2010.
8. Ironically, 40-% of the Cabinet Committee on Security, which takes crucial decisions on national security, comes from Jawaharlal Nehru University, which was pulled up by the Modi government in 2016 as “anti-national”. Many right-wing voices had relentlessly called the university – ranked second in India’s official NIRF ranking – a threat to national security. It is therefore an interesting fact that out of the five members of the CCS – which is chaired by the Prime Minister – two are JNU alumni. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar did their MPhil and PhD, respectively, from the university.