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09 July 2016

Media Waffles On Modi's Shuffles - 2

Here's why Modi transferred, demoted, promoted and left untouched some of his ministers and MPs of BJP

Continued from Part 1

Subramanian Swamy

A transfer that would have been just short of a revolution was Arun Jaitley’s from the Finance Ministry. Accept it, no BJP supporter likes him. While the Subramanian Swamy camp makes no bones about their disapproval of Jaitley, supporters who are more loyal to Modi stay silent on his performance, camouflaging their disaffection for Jaitley with invectives showered upon Swamy like “he is a maverick”; “he was once with Jayalalithaa and then he went after her”; “he wrote an article against the RSS once upon a time”; “he was behind the Vajpayee government’s fall in 1999”, etc [Click on this link for Swamy’s rebuttals].

Modi knows better than any of us what Swamy is. If it is not the 75 years age limit that went against Swamy, it is also a good idea to keep a rabble rouser out of ministries. This is not to say Swamy has no utility; he is actually of immense political use, especially as a one-man demolition squad against the Nehru-Gandhi family. But if he has to do justice to his litigious self, it’s better to not push him into administration for the sake of all the ongoing trials where he is the most visible plaintiff. The cases, when concluded, might well come in handy in the nick of time for the BJP’s renewed bid for power in 2019.

Arun Jaitley

Modi knows him, too, better than we do. The impatience of BJP supporters notwithstanding, the current Finance Minister’s stature has not grown in the government in its first two years. First Jaitley lost the Defence Ministry to Parrikar. Now he has lost the I&B Ministry to M Venkaiah Naidu. This is over and above the insider account Swarajya had shared with its readers about how Jaitley’s powers were gradually getting delegated to top economists in the Finance Ministry and NITI Aayog in the very first year of this government — after he read out the Vote on Accounts speech that sounded, beyond the first paragraph, like a draft prepared by bureaucrats. Not quite satisfied with this much of clipping of Jaitley’s wings, Modi further ensured that the Finance Minister called on him time and again in course of the preparations for Budgets 2015-16 and 2016-17 to get the boss’s vision translated as per the boss’s roadmap. This much is enough, Modi would believe, being a leader who never experimented with drastic changes in Gujarat.

As an additional reason, one may factor in the dreaded Lutyens’ network, most significantly comprising the Delhi-based media, which never wrote or spoke a word against Jaitley throughout his career. But the legendary Lutyens’ metaphor has shrunk in the new council of ministers, too. The new ministers hail from areas that are too far-flung, minding their regional businesses so far, to be part of the capital city’s elites.

Talking of the present government’s communication mechanisms, one would say that, mercifully, the Congress-led UPA’s appointees no longer decide how the BJP-led NDA government should be projected via Doordarshan, which was the scene for a long time after Modi assumed Prime Minister’s Office and moved to 7 Race Course Road. There were some glitches, of course. A journalist who was seen as close to the BJP and Sangh Parivar was made a senior consulting editor of DD News last year to usher in pro-government changes. Unfortunately for the right wing narrative, it is not as shrewdly disciplined as the left wing is. Mutual envy and rivalry surface in no time in the right wing. This journalist turned insecure in the new position soon, telling the staffers of the channel that none of the known BJP sympathisers should be invited to the channel’s talk shows. Those who were his friends till a day before changed overnight, in his perception, to threats of competition! The scenario changed only after he was moved from Doordarshan to a school of mass communication.

Though Jaitley with a formidable experience in keeping journalists in good humour could handle such puerility, finance was his prioritised portfolio from which he couldn’t be expected to spare too much of time managing the psychology of pro-BJP journalists. And Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, his deputy, does not have the foggiest of ideas about how to manage the fourth estate. So, in comes Naidu as his new senior.

M Venkaiah Naidu

How successful will Naidu be in managing journalists? Here is another insider’s account. It’s an informal meeting of scribes with some ministers during the NDA-1 government. While our fellow professionals are enjoying what is known as “high tea”, a friend and former colleague approaches Naidu, first shakes hands with the politician, saying, “Aur sir, kaise hain (how do you do, sir)?” Naidu smiles back. So far so good! Next, this journalist puts his hand on Naidu’s belly and, making circles on the leader’s belly with his hand, asks, “maamla theek hai na (everything alright)?” The BJP’s then media manager and head of intellectual cell is stunned. Other journalists in the hall look on for a few seconds with disbelief, perhaps envying this man’s equations with the leader. But Naidu does not mind the scribe’s crude display of proximity to him. The two are still good friends.

In the meantime, another good networker from the D4 of LK Advani’s era gets Naidu’s Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs: Ananth Kumar. “D4” or “Delhi 4” was a deprecatory term used to refer to four BJP leaders who were believed to form Advani’s coterie: Jaitley, Naidu, Kumar and Sushma Swaraj.

Sushma Swaraj

The last of the quartet has been away from the humdrum, managing external affairs without fuss and turning into an object of silent admiration of NRIs, PIOs and this country’s frequent international travellers. She addresses their concerns with alacrity first via Twitter and then ensures their safety and security by alerting the foreign missions and, if need be, making personal visits to disentangle the knots. The issue that the Congress had raised about her daughter being in the battery of lawyers of Lalit Modi was effectively countered by the minister in Parliament; it is now a settled debate.

Ravi Shankar Prasad

Not as high profile like the four above, but quite a recognisable face, Ravi Shankar Prasad could not solve the call drop issue while working as the Minister for Communications. Forget known critics of the BJP, the party’s own supporters, some of them with a massive following in social networking sites, had begun saying Prasad couldn’t figure out the head or tail of telecommunication technology. Jogging the memory, one would say this is his second failure in a technical field of work. In the NDA-1 government as the then I&B Minister, he had failed to persuade cable operators to switch to the Conditional Access System or CAS.

DV Sadananda Gowda

A lawyer, Prasad replaces DV Sadananda Gowda in the Law Ministry. Gowda may be a Good Samaritan, but that is not enough to succeed in administration. While losing his Railway portfolio to Suresh Prabhu earlier, he was allegedly found to be devoid of the tact needed to manage bureaucrats, as few completed the tasks given to them by Gowda within the deadlines. In the Law Ministry as well, some representations of the government in the court have caused a loss of face once in a while. Recall the stand taken on the Kohinoor issue recently, for example. In fact, awkward affidavits filed in the Supreme Court have been a nagging problem with the current government, and the entity to be blamed for that is the Law Ministry. Gowda had to go.

Faggan Singh Kulaste

Well, these were the big names. I will specially mention just one new minister whose work in the Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh belt was explained to me during the recent Simhastha Convention in Indore-Ujjain. Working with an NGO headed by a descendant of Lahiri Mahasaya, Faggan Singh Kulaste has transformed Adivasis with militant tendencies, touched their poverty-stricken lives with compassion and brought them from Maoism to the Hindu fold. The Mandla district is one place where no tribal man, woman or child doubts that Adivasis are Hindus. Few ministers in past and present governments can boast of bringing about such a social transformation at the grassroot level. Delhi-based media does not even know about it. How can they report it?

Experts not required

Other new ministerial appointees will narrate their stories in some months. No doubt, these are no political big wigs. Their personalities certainly do not permit making decisions or sticking to them, let alone look the boss in the eye. But you must be uninitiated to believe Modi would have an Atal Bihari Vajpayee-like Cabinet. After a respite of 14 odd years between PV Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee, India has gone back to singular persona-driven political parties in the last 12 years. Imagine the Congress without Sonia Gandhi, the SP without Mulayam Singh Yadav, the BSP without Mayawati, the TMC without Mamata Banerjee, the AIADMK without J Jayalalithaa, the DMK without M Karunanidhi, the NCP without Sharad Pawar, the AAP without Arvind Kejriwal… Hell, the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar couldn’t stand even an ailing George Fernandes who, the current Chief Minister of Bihar thought at the time, was breathing down his neck!

As for expertise, if an ex-FICCI Amit Mitra cannot turn the fortunes of West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee — Manmohan Singh’s futility under Sonia Gandhi is too well known for reiteration — of what use is a minister’s domain knowledge? Ergo, Dr Harsh Vardhan, among the few ministers in Modi’s first Cabinet who knew the department he was given, saw himself removed from the portfolio in the first shuffle. Thereafter, expecting experts of domains to head the respective ministries was callow.

Yes, this is Modi’s show, a one-man show, which journalists sometimes get right, but then forget again as they did in the last three days. This is Modi’s gamble. Come 2019, he gets credit for everything good from the supporters and all the brickbats for everything the detractors believe has gone wrong.

Media Waffles On Modi's Shuffles - 1

Speculations are rife whenever journalists try to read the Prime Minister’s mind. In the last three days, as always, Modi drove them to their wit’s end just as he had the day before inducting his first council of ministers two years ago

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have some fun, virtually challenging the media to read his mind for 48 hours. On 4 July, even as journalists had been speculating on the shape of the then impending Cabinet reshuffle, he told the Press that it would be an expansion drive, not a reshuffle. Hiding its disappointment, television channels ran tickers on the screen, relaying the announcement, and newspapers the next morning reported that the Cabinet would merely see some new appointments while no NDA MP was gaining or losing a job. With the swearing-in ceremony for the new appointees on 5 July, Modi appeared to keep his word initially. But as is a political commentator’s wont, tongues would wag with whatever information available. So, until the surprise unravelled, there were those usually suspected commentaries like this was nothing but “social engineering”, “with an eye on Uttar Pradesh polls”. Not wrong, but Modi must have smiled at the journalist’s naïveté. And then, by the evening, there were several transfers and demotions and a few promotions.

Proven wrong and right in a span of two days, the regular faces on television somehow regained their composure and fired the next salvo — “these 19 ministers have no track record in governance”, almost saying they will prove incompetent. The Prime Minister proved them wrong again, much as the next flurry of information from the government did not quite circulate among the people, thanks to a media embarrassed by surprises in quick succession. The PMO via Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (I&B) sent a directive to DD News that its anchors must deal with the administrative aspects of the reshuffle rather than its political implications. The obedient employees of the State let the panellists know as much while meekly saying “you are not bound as we are; you may talk politics if you want to, but speak more on administration, please”.

The new ministers

The prime-time debate on DD News, supposed to be of half-an-hour, then began with a 15-minute report on the curricula vitae of the new ministers. That there was a diktat from the top to play these résumés is not important; every government would like the national broadcaster to project a positive image of the dispensation. The point this article is making is about the number of times scribes frothing at the mouth on Twitter and private news channels were proven to be opinionated without adequate information at their disposal.

Indeed, none of the 19 ministers turns out to be a bumpkin, fresh out of a backwater with no exposure to governance, legislatures and other mechanisms of dealing with the people and making policies for them. So what if five of them are from the Scheduled Castes, two from the Scheduled Tribes, one from the socially-forward-avowedly-backward Jat community and quite a few from the Other Backward Classes? So what if Modi felt it would be an inopportune time to drop a Brahmin from the Cabinet before the Uttar Pradesh election? Is it possible for any government in India to put in place a council of ministers where you couldn’t tell the caste of any? If there is a skew in the Cabinet’s demographics, the commentariat have a problem; if there is quite an even distribution of posts among castes, the commentariat still have a problem! We spent decades lamenting the fact that our ministers are much older than their foreign counterparts. Then Modi introduces an upper age limit of 75 years. The commentariat continue to have a problem!

First of all, here is the list to address the issue of “inexperience”. If you were to say that the MPs elevated as ministers have got quite a career in administration, the commentariat would call your “hagiography” was not needed as the info is in the public domain now. But the fact is that such lists in media websites were uploaded late in the night of 5 July after the Doordarshan act. By then, high-profile journalists heading the same media houses had already dismissed the reshuffle as perfunctory.

There is one new minister who will get a special mention in the second part of this two-part article.

Piyush Goyal

But has the exercise satisfied the supporters of the government? They expected, for example, a promotion for Piyush Goyal, arguably among the best of performers in this government, the other performers being Nitin Gadkari, Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar. But pragmatic that Modi is, of what practical use was promoting an MoS with independent charge to the Cabinet rank? A pat on the back for good work? Modi is less sentiment-driven than you think. What about the licence to attend Cabinet meetings where crucial decisions are taken collectively? For that, replay the soundbytes of the new ministers after they were sworn in and assigned portfolios. “I will carry out Modiji’s instructions” is more or less what all of them said. “Modiji’s instructions” apply to Goyal, too — more so because he is relatively young with years of politics left in him.

Cheerleaders of Goyal, who has endeared to many with his disarming smile as much as he awes the people with his electrification drive, must keep in mind another aspect of Modi’s nature. He does not like any one of the functionaries of his government to be singled out for treatment reserved for a hero. When the media says somebody is getting something from Modi, the MP or minister can be almost sure he is not getting it. Remember 26 May 2014? No speculated minister got the ministry television channels were saying he or she would. Therefore, if you care for Goyal, just temper down your publicly expressed enthusiasm about him.

Gadkari, Prabhu and Parrikar were already Cabinet ministers. They couldn’t have been raised even higher, and the fact that they have retained their respective ministries is appreciation enough from the Prime Minister.

Smriti Irani

As for keeping at bay those with a proclivity to create controversies, which is what the media speculated for a whole day, this may not be the only reason for moving Smriti Irani from the MHRD to the Textiles Ministry. Irani did a harm that few or none in the media reported. She turned some eminent supporters of Modi into sworn enemies of his government. If you happened to hang around in the Delhi University campus during the Lok Sabha election campaign, talking to pro-BJP professors who are members of DUTA, the university teachers’ union, and if you happened to talk to them again after the messy settlement of the four-year undergraduate programme dispute, you would know the damage Irani did. “She talked to us as though we were peons in her office,” you would hear these professors say. Forget their feudalistic refrain against the dignity of labour of a Class IV staff; you get the drift, don’t you?

In fact, so high-handed was Irani in the MHRD that some bureaucrats in other ministries who learnt of her style of functioning were awestruck by her act of throwing her weight around. When the Ministry of Culture, for example, was taking time to determine an appropriate action against the then secretary in Sangeet Natak Akademi who faced several charges of corruption, some babus in the said cultural department said they wanted the “indecisive” Mahesh Sharma to be replaced by an “assertive” Irani! That was being unfair to Sharma who naturally needed time to hear out all the parties to the dispute and study all the relevant files.

As someone who was surprised to see Irani as the education minister on the day of her selection for the portfolio two years ago, I must say she had no vision for the education sector alright, but she was more of a mess maker rather than an education minister who did things that only behove uneducated people. No, Modi couldn’t have been entirely upset about the Rohith Vemula and Umar Khalid episodes. That is a hypothesis of communist newspapers. Supporters of the ruling party were happy that the communists had handed over the plank of nationalism on a platter to the BJP in that duration. Communists received the snub of the century at that time when they felt the urge to carry the National Flag and march through the streets of different cities to prove their patriotism — something they had never done before in the almost 70 years since 15 August 1947.

Irani’s problem was that, as an inexperienced politician, she was leaving too many fingerprints of what should have been her covert acts. Take the action recommended against Vemula, for example. Why to send formal letters from the MHRD to the Hyderabad Central University advising suspension of some recalcitrant students when, as the country’s Education Minister, Irani could have derived the desired result through some phone calls to the varsity’s authorities? Shrewd politicians speak through aides; their voices are hardly caught on tape and they do not leave their signatures or their officers’ on tell-tale documents.

Prakash Javadekar

Will Prakash Javadekar do a better job of it? One is not sure his assertion that he is a product of student agitation under the JP movement helps in clearing impasses of the JNU kind. What he does have in his arsenal is a weapon that Goyal possesses, as mentioned above. While not coming across as suave like Goyal, Javadekar can disarm anybody with his polite behaviour and soft demeanour. Irani and he together make a study in contrasting characters. The education sector is not going to be revolutionised in the near future, but the new person at its helm is likely to hit far less discordant notes. HRD is a prominent ministry, and Modi has entrusted Javadekar with the task not only for the negotiating skills that the Maharashtrian brings to the table but also for his remarkable record in carrying out instructions from the PMO.

Perhaps no ministry has witnessed a paradigm change as much as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that Javadekar headed as the MoS (IC) until a few days ago. The “Jayanti Natarajan tax” Modi mocked about during his 2014 campaign is now a forgotten chapter as are the industry’s clashes with the ministry under Jairam Ramesh. And for this, Javadekar did not offer clearances at the drop of a hat, contrary to the propaganda against him in some newspapers. He cleverly reduced the number of authorities that once signed on the dotted line. Now, if a factory springs up in your locality, which you think was licensed wrongly, blame your state government instead of the Centre. Javadekar’s stewardship of the MoEFCC has been the most remarkable crusade against UPA-era “policy paralysis”. He did not rule that environmental sanctions would no longer be required for potentially polluting industry, which could disturb environmentalists. He just changed the rules so that an applicant no longer had to knock on two doors — Centre and the state — for any given clearance; the provincial authority alone sufficed. Modi had to recognise the wise man’s talent.

The second part of this article has been published in this blog after it was carried by Swarajya. It deals with Arun Jaitley, Subramanian Swamy, M Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar, Sushma Swaraj (though she has not been moved from the position she held in the Cabinet), Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sadananda Gowda and Faggan Singh Kulaste

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.