In terms of its scope and political messaging, the reshuffle of the council of ministers effected was arguably the biggest such exercise in several years. It has brought in former CMs Narayan Rane and Sarbananda Sonowal, women leaders such as Meenakshi Lekhi, Shobha Karandlaje, Bharati Pawar and Pratima Bhowmik, politicians with strong grassroot connections and better-known faces like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Rajiv Chandrashekhar.
The portfolio allocation reflected important roles for Dharmendra Pradhan who moved to education, Mansukh Mandavia who has been given charge of health and chemicals and fertilisers, Kiren Rijjuju, the new law minister, and Giriraj Singh, who got the politically significant rural development portfolio. There was also a wild card entry, Ashwini Vaishnaw, who bagged the meaty railways, communication and IT ministries. Virender Kumar, a low-profile Dalit leader from MP, is the social justice and empowerment minister in place of Thaawarchand Gehlot.
Just as significant as the inductions and elevations were the exit of senior ministers like IT and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and I&B minister Prakash Javadekar, who have been public faces of BJP and the government. Exit of health minister Harsh Vardhan, HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal and chemicals and fertilisers minister Sadanand Gowda added up to a significant recast. Social justice and empowerment minister Thaawarchand Gehlot quit a day earlier and was appointed Karnataka governor.
The scope of the reshuffle can be judged by the fact that only two of the current ministers — defence minister Rajnath Singh and minister for minority affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi — were in the Vajpayee ministry. Given the younger age profile of the new ministers, the PM has sought to bring a new set that will have close to three years to gain experience of office before the next Lok Sabha polls. After the reshuffle, there are only two MoS (independent charge) Rao Inderjit and Jitendra Singh. Prahlad Patel, who held independent charge of culture, has lost the perch.
The new nominees reflect an effort to increase the profile of OBCs in the council of ministers, with the number reaching 27 in a ministry of 78. The attempt to reduce the bias towards upper castes is clearly intended to further expand BJP’s appeal among OBCs and make it a more inclusive platform. The emphasis on “backwards” has been complimented by picking nominees who have credentials as doctors, lawyers and community workers.
The chopping has extended to the MoS ranks with Santosh Gangwar, who held independent charge as labour minister, being shown the door. Similarly, ministers of state Babul Supriyo, Dhotre Sanjay Shamrao, Rattan Lal Kataria, Pratap Sarangi and Debasree Chaudhari are out. Lacklustre performance has seen them make way for choices the BJP brass feel will make a mark.
BJP’s electoral needs in UP, where party appears to have made a conscious effort to supplement its Hindutva (Kamandal) plank by bringing in non-Yadav “backwards” (Mandal), Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal appeared to have been a major consideration.
The new ministers represent hard-nosed political calculations such as Rane who is seen as a pugnacious Maratha leader who can be a counter to Shiv Sena and NCP in his area of influence in Konkan. Sonowal’s induction reaches out to Assamese sentiments after he made way for Himanta Sarma, who articulates Hindutva issues more sharply.
There are several ministers who reflect the criteria of having a solid work at the state level. Virendra Kumar (MP); Pankaj Chaudhary, S P Baghel, Bhanu Pratap Verma and Kaushal Kishore (UP); Ajay Bhatt (Uttarakhand); Chauhan Devusinh (Gujarat); Bhagwanth Khuba (Karnataka); and Bhagwat Karad (Maharashtra) fit this bill.
Ties with Bihar ally, JD(U), have been consolidated with the induction of its chief R C P Singh as steel minister and that of Pashupati Kumar Paras who has the backing of chief minister Nitish Kumar.
UP ally Anupriya Patel, leader of Kurmi outfit Apna Dal, has been brought back, while Scindia’s appointment as civil aviation minister — his father Madhavrao had held the portfolio in the 80s — marks the closure of the deal with the former Congress leader who last year helped BJP regain power in Madhya Pradesh by crossing over.
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