As Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes for a third reshuffle since coming to power, it’s time to take a look at the nature of the Union Cabinet under him and the purpose the reshuffle serves.
A common message being sent out is that this round is largely about three considerations – filling up vacancies, removing under-performing ministers and accommodating new allies.
Given that the next Lok Sabha polls are only one-and-half years away, sacking ministers for unsatisfactory performance at this stage will be a serious verdict on the government’s last three-and-a-half years. The existence of vacancies too is a part of the same narrative.
Accommodation of allies would be evidence of putting politics before governance. Admitting that this is not the first government to be held guilty of that, it needs to be said that there is very little clarity on this government’s achievements in governance.
Cabinet system not fully functional
Many political observers are of the opinion that this reshuffle has nothing, or very little, to do with the performance of ministries and specific ministers.
Professor Balveer Arora, Chairman of the Centre for Multilevel Federalism at the Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences, told Catch one of the reasons the reshuffle made sense – that the government is grossly understaffed and there are vacancies.
About performance and accountability, Arora says there has hardly been any stock taking of what work ministers have actually done or not done.
He admitted that there is a constant undercurrent of ministers being rated and evaluated by the top brass, but there is no evidence of a minister being punished for under-performance. Had that been the case, why would Finance Minister Arun Jaitley not have been sacked over the state that the economy is in, he wondered.
According to Arora, this government doesn’t have even have half a dozen ministers of stature and it is all about a jugalbandi between Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. There is concentration of power under the Prime Minister’s Office, which has become more powerful than before, almost as powerful as under India Gandhi, if not more, he said. This concentration of power, he added, reflects in the performance of ministries.
Arora also believes that NDA also relies more on bureaucracy and the cabinet system is certainly not fully functional under this government.
More about internal dynamics
Suhas Palshikar, former professor of political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, feels that the reshuffle is more about internal dynamics of the governing party and coalition than anything else.
NDA wanted to, Palshikar feels, accommodate some new allies, some new castes and some new regions. He added that this reshuffle also indicates that however strong Modi may have become, he is still being forced to balance various factions in the party.
Kanpur-based political analyst AK Verma told Catch that apart from political compulsions of accommodating new allies like JD(U) and AIADMK in the government, there appeared to be some unhappiness in the Prime Minister’s heart for non-performers. He agreed that 2019 was weighing heavy on the PM’s mind and some negative signals had already started emerging because of the adverse effects of demonetisation and the dip in economic growth.
Verma also said that the BJP is slightly limited by capital of its own people, in the sense that there is a lack of ministerial experience.
‘Who has been sacked for failure of Swachh Bharat?’
Professor Ajay Kumar Singh, Head of the UGC-Centre for Federal Studies at Jamia Hamdard University in New Delhi, said that the principal objective of this reshuffle was upcoming assembly polls, mainly in states like Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Another goal is to silence all dissent within the party ahead of the 2019 polls, he said.
Singh too agreed that decision making in this government is indeed concentrated in the PMO, with ministers being almost entirely sidelined. Referring to media reports that bureaucrats in the PMO prepared excel sheets evaluating ministers on various parameters, he said the Prime Minister has powers to expel ministers in a Cabinet system but this was ridiculous.
Singh too questioned the propaganda on accountability being sought through the reshuffle by pointing out that a mere look proves that Swachh Bharat has been a failure. But has any minister been sacked for it, he asks.
He also alleged that there is a deliberate attempt to give greater representation to the Western region of the country in the cabinet, at the cost of other regions.
According to Dr Gurpreet Mahajan, professor at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the reshuffle had been necessitated by the perception among people about work done by some ministers.
As for the need to accommodate parties, states, regions, communities, Mahajan said that has always been the case, irrespective of the party in power. She also noted that in this government, the PMO indeed has bigger say in the Cabinet’s decisions, but the ideal Cabinet system has for long existed only in books, even globally.