POLITICS

Did The BJP's NDA Partners Get The Short End Of The Stick At The Cabinet Reshuffle?

The real message sent out by the reshuffle is not that now there is “formidable force” gearing up for 2019.

04/09/2017 12:44 PM IST | Updated 04/09/2017 12:46 PM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Amit Shah, the president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It's been dubbed Narendra Modi's "formidable force in run-up to 2019 general elections".

The cabinet reshuffle is front page news all over India and it leads with the story of the first woman defence minister since Indira Gandhi. Nirmala Sitharaman's appointment as defence minister has been met with much excitement. But so has the news of the others. The Times of India writes, "Ex-home secretary, RSS man, ex-Mumbai top cop & BJP's Dalit face are now part of Modi's formidable force in run-up to 2019."

While "Madam Raksha Mantri" might dominate the headlines because of its symbolism, the real takeaway from the cabinet reshuffle is a reiteration of what everyone knows. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah control the party like no one has ever done before. The new sheriffs are firmly in charge and everyone had better get used to it.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Nirmala Sitharaman, new Union Defence Minister, during a press conference at her residence, on September 3, 2017 in New Delhi, India.

Thus the NDA ministry got a reshuffle but it was a BJP-only affair. The NDA partners had to be content with status quo. Nitish Kumar can put a brave face on it and say his party, which has like the prodigal son, returned to the NDA was not expecting any ministerial berth. But a JDU leader from Patna tells journalist Sankarshan Thakur, "There is disappointment of course. What surprised us was that neither the Prime Minister nor the BJP president chose even to consult us on the reshuffle." Reports have it the JDU's chances were scuttled because of bickering with other partners Shiv Sena and AIADMK. But in the process the BJP also sent a message out that it will step on the toes of its partners if it feels the need.

Analyzing the reshuffle, Hindustan Times says Modi "displayed innovation and boldness in picking new ministers and dropping half-a-dozen non-performers."

The new sheriffs are firmly in charge and everyone had better get used to it.

But the real message sent out by the reshuffle is not that now there is "formidable force" gearing up for 2019. It's that the unquestioned formidable force is the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. As Manini Chatterjee points out in The Telegraph, "the manner in which the reshuffle was executed marked one more step in a process that has been gathering steam for some time now – the replacement of singular supremacy by a formidable duopoly."

Most senior leaders are sidelined. If Modi had felt obliged to accommodate Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj in his first cabinet, now they serve at his pleasure. Their profile has certainly not grown. They are not regarded as the alternate power centres they might have had the potential to become. Even back in 2016 Singh, the no. 2 in the cabinet, was not the one sitting next to Modi while the new ministers were being sworn in. Shah was. Chatterjee writes, "He is the one man who has grown – or been allowed to grow – to a much bigger stature than he enjoyed less than four years ago." A BJP leader grumbled during the 2016 reshuffle, "We would earlier criticise the Congress when Sonia Gandhi played a pivotal role in picking Manmohan Singh's ministers... now we are in the same boat."

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
File photo of Amit Shah, president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

And the success in Uttar Pradesh has cemented what Shekhar Gupta has described as the "rise of the party commissar" on whose walls hang two portraits that sum up his politics – Chanakya and Veer Savarkar. He is the man charged with Mission 350 for 2019. His second term as party president will come to an end in 2019 and if he pulls off Mission 350 or close to it, he could be headed for bigger things. Shah clearly is becoming much larger than Modi's Mr. Fix-it. "The next logical step for him to take over the reigns of not only the party but also the government from Modi when the time comes," writes Prabhpreet Singh Sood in OneIndia. He is as Modi famously said the "man of the match". If Bihar and Delhi had been setbacks to his Chanakyaesque reputation, Uttar Pradesh has wiped that all away. And Bihar too is now back in the fold.

When Shah was re-elected as BJP president, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay had written, "The BJP has a tradition and political philosophy that is at variance with the 'His Master's Voice' culture of the Congress." But now it's clear that the BJP marches now to its masters' voices. That was the message sent out loud and clear with the cabinet reshuffle.

Shah clearly is becoming much larger than Modi's Mr. Fix-it.

While much will be written about which politician from which poll-bound state was given a ministerial berth and which appointment shows the BJP's attempt to woo which community, the larger message remains clear. Two men run the party now. Even Sitharaman's rise to cabinet which set Twitter abuzz can be seen in this light. As JP Yadav writes, "Party sources pointed to one obvious consequence of the job going to the newbie Sitharaman: the Prime Minister's Office can now directly run the defence ministry without bothering about stepping on toes."

Even the RBI reports on demonetization's aims and outcomes cannot change that narrative. Whether it was an economic success or failure, no matter what Raghuram Rajan says, it proved one thing spectacularly. Narendra Modi told the population "Trust me" and they did. As G S Sampath writes in The Hindu, demonetization was not about the economy, nor was it a political masterstroke. It was really an exercise. "It was a drill like the ones conducted in military academies and shakhas every morning. The objective was the same: the perfection of obedience."

And that, rather than excited commentary about who's in and who's out in a ministerial reshuffle, is what makes the BJP led by Modi-Shah a "formidable force" for 2019.

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