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Cabinet reshuffle done with eye to 2019 Lok Sabha polls

The exercise comes against the backdrop of sub-6% economic growth. The new ministers in charge of economic portfolios have remits that will be as crucial for economy as for BJP’s '19 poll prospects.

Sep 04, 2017, 12.13 AM IST
Watch: PM Modi recasts his team for 2019
NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi now leads a big, 75-strong ministerial team — almost as large as United Progressive Alliance’s. But despite the size, two governance messages are clear. First, ministers in key portfolios have to perform and get the word out. Second, bold new calls will be taken, even if they break longstanding political conventions.

Sunday’s exercise comes in the backdrop of faltering, sub-6% economic growth, and the new ministers in charge of economic portfolios have remits that will be as crucial for the economy as for Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2019 poll prospects.

The sharpest message on performance and taking bold calls came in the form of Nirmala Sitharaman. A BJP spokesperson just four years ago, who wasn’t even a member of Parliament when she became a minister of state in 2014, Sitharaman entered the prestigious Cabinet Committee on Security after her dramatic elevation as minister of defence. Now among the cabinet’s top four ministers after the PM, she’s senior to many colleagues with far longer political careers.

Cabinet reshuffle done with eye to 2019 Lok Sabha polls

Some Retain Multiple Portfolios
Sitharaman’s remit will include presiding over the ‘Make in India’ defence manufacturing push, a big potential booster for economic growth and job creation.

There were sharp, if less dramatic messages, in economic governance elsewhere, too. Performing ministers Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan were promoted to the cabinet and given responsibilities identified by the PM as key to good governance — Goyal’s job is to put railways back on track and Pradhan, who retained petroleum, has to make the PM’s Skill India programme work.

A senior leader said there’s clear signal that ministers need to communicate well about the work they are doing, and cited Goyal and Pradhan as two examples of this.

Suresh Prabhu, removed from railways, gets commerce and industry, a sign that the PM retains faith in his ability to work on complex issues. And Nitin Gadkari, a performing minister, gets additional charge of water resources, a job from which Uma Bharati was removed.

Portfolios given to new inductees also bear out the same message of performance and bold calls. Hardeep Puri, a former diplomat, gets urban development — affordable housing being both an economic multiplier and a voter favourite. RK Singh, ex-IAS, gets power, Goyal’s old job, where he has to continue the predecessor’s good run on broadening electricity access. KJ Alphons, former IAS officer, gets tourism and electronics & IT — sectors crucial for generating jobs and growth.

All three are atypical politicians, and Modi’s decision to bring them in as ministers of state and give them independent charge of important economic ministries was another demonstration he’s ready to ignore political convention and bet on new talent.

Some ministers retained multiple portfolios, signalling the PM approved of their performance. Key among them Smriti Irani, who retained information & broadcasting and textiles, and Harsh Vardhan, who retained environment and science & technology.

There was, of course, considerable political thinking, too, behind the expansion and portfolio reallocation. First, this was a pure BJP exercise. The ruling party demonstrated its utter dominance of the National Democratic Alliance.

Second, there were ministerial picks from states going to polls: Gajendra Shekhawat from Rajasthan, Anant Hegde from Karnataka and Veerendra Kumar from Madhya Pradesh. Promoting Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to cabinet rank as minority affairs minister was also a political signal, especially given the often-charged discourse around minority rights.

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