By Sanjeev Srivastava
I can’t even remember when a Prime Minister sent a message so loud and clear through an exercise that is his sole prerogative: Cabinet reshuffle.
Of course, Manmohan Singh never had the freedom: His council of ministers was a mix of diktats he got from Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and coalition supremos like K. Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar and the gang. Atal Behari Vajpayee too exercised this prerogative sparingly, like when he insisted and got Jaswant Singh as his finance minister despite opposition from the Swadeshi lobby and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Mostly it was a consultative exercise between Vajpayee, Advani, RSS chief Rajju Bhaiya and alliance partners.
The United Front Prime Ministers — Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral — were hardly prime ministers in that sense. The last time someone behaved like a Prime Minister was P.V. Narsimha Rao, who ran his minority government with a fair degree of independence and authority through a mix of cunning, corruption and real politik. That was more then 20 years ago and for all his brahmanical guile Narsimha Rao had to constantly watch over his shoulders and thus was not always his own master.
Modi suffers from no such handicaps. He has used this cabinet reshuffle both to reiterate a few points as also to make a few new ones.
That he is his own boss is something we all knew. He has re-emphasised this succinctly by virtually sacking Smriti Irani; by clipping the wings of Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shanker Prasad; by demoting the likes of Jayant Sinha, Mahesh Sharma and Sadanand Gowda, and promoting the quiet doers like Prakash Javdekar and Manoj Sinha.
Piyush Goyal may not have got a cabinet rank but he will be looking after important infrastructure portfolios like coal, power, renewable energy and mines.
The message is clear: Proximity, sycophancy, media management won’t work in Narendra Damodardas Modi’s cabinet. Performance will count and merit will be rewarded. Most of the new inductees are educated and professionals — doctors, lawyers, conservationists, ex-bureaucrats and former journalists.
That someone like M.J. Akbar, a bitter critic of Prime Minister Modi not till long ago, will now be India’s voice and face across the world as Minister of State for External Affairs is a signal for me. As credentials go, I can’t think of anyone more suited for the job than Akbar, the suave, sophisticated, articulate and the liberal modern face of Indian Muslims. The PM could have been petty minded — as many remain convinced that he is — but the fact that Modi is willing to forget, forgive and move on bodes well for his government as well as the country.
The other message is don’t mess with him and don’t take him for granted. And definitely, don’t become an embarrassment for his government. Smriti Irani learnt it the hardest way possible. She got into the habit of getting into wholly avoidable slug fests and slaying imaginary demons. Also, proximity to corporate houses will not be appreciated. Ravi Shanker Prasad lost Telecom Ministry because he was seen as being soft on Reliance.
Jayant Sinha had become a bit snooty and arrogant too early in his political innings. He also paid the price for speaking out of turn. Sinha also lulled himself into believing that nothing will ever go wrong with him as he was amongst the chosen ones and someone who had the Prime Minister’s blessings.
It will take a while to fully appreciate how much — if at all — Arun Jaitley has lost out in this cabinet reshuffle. He still retains finance and in today’s world that remains the most important portfolio after the Prime Minister’s. Has he been divested of I&B because the Prime Minister wants someone to do a better job there or is it simply a case of Modi wanting Arun Jaitley to give his undivided attention to finance?
My guess is that while Jaitley still remains part of the inner circle with Amit Shah and enjoys the Prime Minister’s confidence, his influence, power and position on the high table has certainly lost some of its earlier sheen. By how many notches? Nobody knows.
The final message: Only one man seems to be enjoying the complete trust of the Prime Minister as of now and he is perhaps the only one — apart from a couple of senior PMO officials –who knew and perhaps had a say in this exercise. Amit Shah. Fellow traveller from Gujarat and Narendra Modi’s ‘Hanuman’.
(Sanjeev Srivastava is Delhi-based senior political commentator and former India Editor at the BBC.)