In symbolism as well as an eye for detail, the reshuffle of the Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi-led Council of Ministers on Sunday morning was aimed at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The PM only tried to fix what was broken, leaving several of the ministers with more than one portfolio; this also underscored the talent deficit the government faces.
If the PM was attempting to recapture the political narrative with the rejig, he accomplished it by projecting the “woman power” of his government in elevating Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister. This was also aimed at bolstering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) outreach in the south.
Sitharaman is the first woman to hold the portfolio independently. Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had held it as additional charge. Sitharaman said it was a “big message to the world of what the status of women in India was... This country will never stop promoting women.”
Other changes were aimed at fine-tuning the government’s performance in some of the key infrastructure sectors. Former bureaucrats were given important jobs and ministries close to the PM’s heart, such as Ganga rejuvenation, were recast. Attention was also paid to streamline ministries whose performance was important to boost BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha campaign, such as skill development, housing and urban affairs, power, and railway.
Nirmala Sitharaman takes oath as Cabinet minister in New Delhi on Sunday. She is the first woman after former prime minister Indira Gandhi to get charge of the defence portfolio. Photo: Reuters
Piyush Goyal, one of the performing ministers, has been put in charge of the railway ministry. He has also retained the coal ministry. His predecessor in the ministry, Suresh Prabhu — who had offered to quit recently after a string of train accidents — has been moved to commerce and industry, Sitharaman’s previous portfolios.
In the recent past, several BJP members of Parliament, particularly those from electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, had conveyed to the top leadership how frequent train accidents could hurt the party.
Nine new ministers were sworn in by President Ramnath Kovind on Sunday morning. Four ministers of state — Dharmendra Pradhan, Sitharaman, Goyal and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi — were promoted to Cabinet rank. Of the nine entrants, key portfolios with independent charge were given to former Union home secretary and Ara MP Raj Kumar Singh, former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, and retired IAS officer Alphons Kannanthanam. Puri is MoS (independent charge) urban affairs and housing portfolio.
The PM has tasked this ministry to deliver his “housing for all” promise. Raj Kumar Singh succeeds Goyal as MoS (independent charge) for power.
Two of the five members of the Modi-led Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) are now women — Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
This is unprecedented and the BJP social media team didn’t lose any time in spreading the message of PM’s commitment to his slogan of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh termed it “great and remarkable” that a woman has been appointed to such a crucial post (defence).
The PM was present at the oath-taking ceremony with BJP chief Amit Shah by his side. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley were also present.
Jaitley has been relieved of some of his workload, as he will not have to look after defence anymore. His team was also recast. Arjun Ram Meghwal
and Santosh Gangwar made way for Pon Radhakrishnan and new entrant Shiv Pratap Shukla as junior ministers in the finance ministry.
Gangwar was promoted and entrusted with the portfolio of labour with independent charge. Meghwal will be a junior minister in another important ministry.
Jaitley said allocation of portfolios was done after a close monitoring of the performance of each ministry and its ministers by the PM. "The prime minister has set the bar very high. It is obviously clear that he is very closely monitoring the performance of each ministry and each individual and therefore decided who is to be given what responsibility," Jaitley said.
The PM also set out to infuse new blood in the agriculture ministry. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Krishna Raj are the new junior ministers to Radha Mohan Singh, who succeeded in retaining the portfolio. The two replace S S Ahluwalia and Sudarshan Bhagat. Parshottam Rupala continues to be the third junior minister in the ministry.
Uma Bharati was moved out of the water resources and ganga rejuvenation ministry, along with her two junior ministers — Sanjeev Balyan, who has quit, and Vijay Goel. Apart from his existing responsibilities, Nitin Gadkari will also take care of the ministry, along with Meghwal and new entrant and former Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh.
Similarly, the skill development and entrepreneurship ministry has a new team under Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the former minister, had quit days before the rejig, with questions on his performance.
New entrant and five time Lok Sabha member from Karnataka, Ananthkumar Hegde will be Pradhan’s deputy.
Portfolios of mines and coal, which was earlier with Piyush Goyal, have now been separated at the top but continued to have a common minister of state. While Goyal would continue to hold the coal portfolio, the mine portfolio has been entrusted with Narendra Tomar.
However, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary will handle both mines and coal portfolios as junior minister. He was earlier MoS handling the MSME portfolio. The MSME ministry will now be handled by Giriraj Singh, who was junior minister under Kalraj Mishra, who has quit.
The Parliamentary Affairs ministry has been recast somewhat with Ananth Kumar getting two new juniors in Goel and Meghwal. His previous junior Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is now the cabinet minister for minority affairs. Another junior S S Ahluwalia has been moved out to be the junior of Uma Bharati in her new portfolio of drinking water and sanitation.
Goel finds himself demoted, with Rajyavardhan Rathore being given his MoS (independent charge) portfolio of youth affairs and sports.
The Cabinet now has 27 ministers; there are 11 ministers of state (independent charge), and 37 MoS, taking the total strength of the Council of Ministers — excluding the PM — to 75. According to the Constitution, the maximum number of ministers cannot exceed 15 per cent of the strength of the Lok Sabha, which comes to 82.