Cabinet Reshuffle: Noisy Conflict Versus Silent ExecutionBloombergQuintOpinion
The sweeping cabinet changes of July 6, 2021, were executed in vintage Prime Minister Modi style. Massive. Unapologetic. Provocative. No prisoners were taken as heavyweights from the Vajpayee era were summarily sacked.
While it shall never be explicitly admitted, the scale of the exercise proved that the government’s second innings has been inglorious, with the administration lurching from one misstep to another, especially during the second wave of the pandemic.
The government’s failure in buying vaccines – India was the only large country that had not procured even a single vial until early January this year – was unbelievable. As patients gasped for oxygen, or died waiting outside hospitals, or medicines ran out of stock, or corpses were thrown into rivers, India’s health infrastructure was brutally exposed. Clearly, the incumbent health minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, became the fall guy, although it’s moot whether he was in-charge, or whether the Prime Minister’s hand-picked professional, Dr. VK Paul, was calling all the shots, and reporting directly to the PMO.
Information Minister Prakash Javadekar was culled because he failed to spin a positive narrative as India was roasted in international and domestic media for abusing human rights, either in handling Covid-19 or the year-long farmers’ protest or while enforcing unfair, draconian laws against civil rights activists. Santosh Gangwar was seen to be ineffective in putting through tough labour reforms. Ravi Shankar Prasad was caught in the rapid crossfire coming from all sides, from a restive judiciary, potentially bankrupt telecom companies, and recalcitrant social media giants.
Aggression And Its Outcomes
There was a less-analysed theme through the cabinet changes, i.e. most of the sacked ministers were getting unusually combative in their public posture.
Ravi Shankar Prasad was in a virulent battle with Twitter, weaponising the law against what was once the Modi government’s go-to publicity platform. He was seen to be inflexible, perhaps a bit partial, and not quite the problem solver, as genuine distress threatened to swallow marquee telecom operations. He was also at loggerheads with the judges’ collegium, preferring strong-arm negotiations to a more accommodating, sensitive dialogue among equals.
Prakash Javadekar had incensed environment campaigners by authoring a negative law. Another set of rules, aimed at bringing digital news platforms under government control, was challenged across the country by several media companies for being censorious and against constitutional freedoms.
Dr. Harsh Vardhan, a usually amicable politician, had become unusually acerbic against critics. His harsh reply to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s constructive suggestions to battle Covid-19 was roundly condemned.
So, were these Vajpayee-era ministers sacked because they had become uncharitably aggressive in taking on opponents? Were their public dogfights, vicious and almost unparliamentary, beginning to hurt the government’s image? Or were they sacked because they created a lot of noise but delivered little by way of retribution, i.e., were they sacked because they failed to tame their opponents? The answer to this question is critical and unknown.
What’s The New Mandate?
Most of the ministries held by these veterans have been handed over to young, energetic political turks who enjoy the Prime Minister’s confidence. Ashwini Vaishnaw, Mansukh Mandavia, Anurag Thakur, Kiren Rijiju, Bhupendra Yadav – what is their mandate? To cool down tempers and put forth a more sensitive, reasonable face of the government? Or to double down, become even tougher, but create less noise, execute with the precision of a sniper, without blood-curdling screams spoiling the narrative?
Are they going to be healers, or metaphorically speaking, silent assassins? The answer to this question, hitherto utterly unknown, shall define the politics until 2024, when Modi 2.0 will fight to install Modi 3.0.
Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.