NEW DELHI -- Walking a tightrope between caste and merit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expanded his Council of Ministers to include 19 "doers and performers" who, he believes, will help realize his commitment to "Gaon, Garib and Kisan."
The following leaders, who were chosen after intensive vetting by Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah, took oath at the Rashtrapati Bhavan today: Faggan Singh Kulaste, S.S. Ahluwalia, Ramesh Chandappa, Vijay Goel, Ramdas Athawale, Rajen Gohain, Anil Madhav Dave, Parshottam Rupala, M.J. Akbar, Arjun Meghwal, Jasvantsinh Bhabhor, Mahendra Nath Pandey, Ajay Tamta, Krishna Raje, Mansukhbhai Mandavia, Anupriya Patel, C.R. Chaudhary, P.P. Chaudhary, and Subhash Bhamre.
With the exception of Patel from Apna Dal and Athawale from the Republican Party of India (A), political allies of the BJP, the other inductees belong to the party. While there was no change in the ministries of Defence, Home, Finance and External Affair, Minister of State For Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar was elevated to Cabinet rank.
These 19 junior ministers, who hail from ten states (Assam, West Bengal, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand), are expected to bring "experience, expertise and energy" to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. Three of these states - Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand - will conduct state elections in 2017. Interestingly, no one was included from Punjab, which is also heading to the polls.
While Modi told journalists that he picked leaders who can help implement promises of the Budget, which focused on agriculture, improving the lot of farmers, and development of marginalize communities, the Cabinet expansion also took into account the upcoming polls in U.P., which will have impact the standing of the BJP at the national level, and its prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
U.P., India's most populous state, has 80 Lok Sabha seats (BJP won 73 in the 2014 LS polls), the largest chunk of any state in the country, and 403 Assembly seats out of which 85 are reserved for Scheduled Castes. For the upcoming polls, the BJP is out to win over Dalits outside of the Jatavs, who are fiercely loyal to Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, and voters from Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The Hindu nationalist party is also walking a tightrope in trying to shed its upper caste image for which it paid a price in the Bihar state polls, but, at the same time, retaining support of Brahmins, Banias and Thakurs, who all backed Modi in the Lok Sabha election.
The three new leaders joining the Cabinet from U.P. are Mahendra Pandey, a Brahmin, Krishna Raj, a Dalit and Patel, a Kurmi, an OBC caste. The news appointees also include five Dalits and two leaders from the Scheduled Tribes.
In a balancing act between politics and governance, Modi's selection also drew on talent and meritocracy, which is a break from the caste and religious considerations that weigh heavily on these appointments. For instance, P.P. Chaudhary, a lawmaker from Rajasthan, is a senior Supreme Court advocate and a constitutional law expert, Subhash Ram Rao Bhamre, a lawmaker from Maharashtra, has super specialization in cancer surgery, and M.J. Akbar is a veteran journalist.
Noteworthy appointments included Akbar and S.S. Ahluwalia, who represent religious minorities, and Patel and Krishna Raj, the two women to be sworn-in as junior ministers today.
Miffed at being left out of the discussions over the Cabinet expansion, Shiv Sena, BJP's political ally, originally planned to boycott the oath-taking ceremony, but then Union Minister Anant Geete told reporters that he was heading for the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Tuesday morning.
This is the NDA government's second Cabinet expansion since it came to power in May 2014. Modi inducted 21 new leaders into his Council of Ministers in November 2014, which then took the Cabinet strength to 64.
Press Trust of Indiareported today that five ministers - Nihalchand, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Manuskhbhai D Vasva and M.K. Kundariya - have been dropped from the Council of Ministers.
The fact that the new inductees take the Cabinet strength close to the constitutional limit of 82 was not on lost on the folks on Twitter, who wondered how this was in line with Modi's promise of "maximum governance, minimum government."
A slogan was coined "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance".
Now slogan should be "Maximum Government, Minimum Governance".#ModiCabinet
— Kunal Choudhary (@KunalChoudhary_) July 5, 2016
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