With a little less than two years to go for the Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have ostensibly grappled with certain hard realities.
One, hard-core politicos do not necessarily make for result-oriented administrators. Two, in the last lap of the government, delivering on targets and fulfilling key promises are political imperatives instead of just re-arranging caste layouts. Third, Modi's charisma that remains largely undiminished and Shah's election management savvy may not alone see through the BJP for a second term in 2019, unless these attributes are buttressed by solid deliverables.
These are the messages emanating from the third shuffle of Modi's ministerial council that was effected today after weeks of media speculation that went as far as claiming that India's new Defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman would be repatriated to the BJP organisation as a general secretary and tasked to mind Tamil Nadu, her home state.
Nirmala has the distinction of becoming the second woman in that portfolio after Indira Gandhi and has her job cut out with conflicts and pinpricks on the western and eastern borders. As she is set to become a member of the elite cabinet committee on security affairs as the Defence minister along with the PM, Finance, External Affairs and Home ministers, Nirmala's elevation is a tacit acknowledgment of her educational qualifications (M.Phil from the Jawaharlal Nehru University) and a swathe of work experience that includes stints in Pricewaterhouse Coopers and BBC World Service.
She also founded the Pranava school in Hyderabad that uses avant garde teaching methodologies.
For as long as it was in the Opposition and carried the day with rabble-rousing rhetoric, the BJP never imagined what governance entailed. So much so that in the 1990s when it looked like touching power, veteran LK Advani often wondered whether his party had the talent to meet the demands of governance.
The BJP's ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) did not help matters because it inherently distrusted "outsiders" on the suspicion that they were either out to implement the agenda of the West or the Islamic bloc. Nirmala's induction and absorption in the BJP system was made easier by the fact that she was also involved with the RSS's Swadeshi Jagran Manch and in that sense, "proved" her pro-Sangh credentials.
It must have been a long pull for the Modi-Shah duo to convince the Sangh about the need to take in the other professionals and give the cabinet the "new look" it required to brace itself for the PM's "New India" template. They had their way in the end, even if the deal involved a small quid pro quo such as retaining Uma Bharati in the government with a new portfolio instead of her earlier Ganga Rejuvenation that has gone to Nitin Gadkari.
Hardeep Singh Puri, Raj Kumar Singh and Alphons Kannanthanam have got in as ministers of state with independent charge even as BJP old-timers such as Vijay Goel, SS Ahluwalia and Parshottam Rupala continue to be ministers of state. Puri, a former high-ranking diplomat who was mentored by the legendary JN Dixit, former foreign secretary and briefly a National Security Advisor to Manmohan Singh, had hoped to step into Dixit's shoes as NSA to Modi in 2014. He was beaten by Ajit Doval, an RSS favourite.
Arun Jaitley, the Finance and Corporate Affairs minister, who was instrumental in bringing Puri to the BJP, convinced Modi and Shah to put him in charge of an infrastructure department. As the Housing and Urban Affairs minister, Puri will helm the implementation of the Smart Cities scheme, a flagship programme of the Modi government.
Likewise, Singh—earlier in the news for alleging that the BJP had hawked away tickets during the Bihar assembly polls—has bagged the Power and New and Renewable Energy ministries, held earlier by Piyush Goyal and dear to the PM. Alphons, famously known as the "demolition man" when he was a bureaucrat, has been given tourism, electronics and information technology.
The BJP hopes to use Alphons to network with the Church in Kerala, the state he comes from.
If the exercise carried political messages, these were wrapped in the induction of Shiv Pratap Shukla and Ashwini Kumar Choubey. Both are Brahmins, Shukla from Uttar Pradesh and Choubey from Bihar. Shukla is from Gorakhpur, the political turf of the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and is an old rival of the Yogi. Apart from being seen as a counterweight against Yogi, his appointment, albeit as a junior minister, is meant to assuage the sentiments of the state's Brahmins who have chafed against the Yogi's tendency to patronise the Rajputs. The CM is a Rajput.
Choubey is an RSS nominee and like Shukla, a junior minister.
When Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar were brought in from Mumbai and Panaji respectively in Modi's first team shuffle in 2014, enormous hope was reposed in their "efficiency", "professionalism" and an "ability to turn things around". Three years down the line, the jury's out on their "contributions". Parrikar returned to Goa as the chief minister. Prabhu quit the Railways and has got Commerce, a saving grace. Will today's bunch of "professionals" live up to Modi's expectations?
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