Seven key takeaways from the Modi Cabinet overhaul

Straddling multiple requirements of ensuring diversity, talent, youth, experience and politics, PM Modi has overhauled the Cabinet as the mid-term of his current term nears.

 |  7-minute read |   09-07-2021
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The expansion of the Cabinet and the reshuffling of the portfolios of ministers, as announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has significant economic and political impact. While most of the commentary has focussed on the new exits and entries into the council, the impact on the governance of the country has sadly not been analysed well.

Here's listing out the seven key impacts of the reshuffling exercise undertaken in the seventh year of the Modi government:

main_modi-cabinet-mi_070921021151.jpgThe new Team NaMo.

1. Shifting of Public Enterprises from Ministry of Heavy Industries to Finance

Prime Minister Modi seems to make it a point to go against the advice given by “experts” in the media, both on political and policy issues. Many commentators wanted the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management and Department of Public Enterprises to be spun into one mega ministry that would be even bigger than the one headed by Arun Shourie during the Vajpayee premiership. However, by placing the Public Enterprises department under Finance Ministry, PM Modi has brought management and privatisation of PSUs under a single roof.

Now, the Finance Ministry will not only deal with Strategic Disinvestment Asset Monetisation and Capital Restructuring related to PSUs, but also take care of evaluation of the performance of PSUs and advice measures related to revival, restructuring or closure of PSUs. This merger certainly has the potential to speed up the privatisation agenda of the Government.  

2. Formation of Cooperation Ministry

This is one ministry to watch out for as we go towards the 2024 elections. Cooperatives are a big source of political patronage (and corruption) in many states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. The fact that this has been placed not under Finance or Commerce but rests with Home Minister Amit Shah, speaks to the importance attached to this ministry.

The strong grip of NCP over sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra, and the CPI(M) in Kerala will certainly come under challenge and scrutiny from this ministry.

3.Steps taken towards greater synergy

The process of combining ministries in the same domain which was started in 2019 with the creation of a unified Jal Shakti Ministry to handle all water-related matters or the 2014 process of having a single minister for power and renewable energy has been extended in this exercise too.

Combining pharmaceuticals with health will definitely streamline the procurement of pharmaceuticals, and further help in the development of the domestic pharma industry. Similarly, merging skill development with the Education Ministry can enable skill development courses to reach students at the school and university levels to equip them with industry-ready skills.

With Science and Technology and Earth Sciences also handled by Dr Jitendra Singh, all research and development departments are now under the Prime Minister’s Office, the other R&D ministries being Space and Atomic Energy. However, a lot of work still needs to be done in this area, as sectors like energy, transportation and agriculture are distributed among 3-5 ministers each.

4. No softening of stand on OTTs and social media platforms

If one sees the fresh appointments to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of Information Technology as a sign of the government softening its stand on regulation being brought in domains of OTTs, social media and digital monopoly, think again.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which has brought in new regulations on social media and digital media platforms, remains very much in force. The first statement of Union Minister of IT Ashwini Vaishnaw to the media makes it amply clear — all those who live and work in India have to abide by the IT Rules of the country — strongly signalling that Twitter has to abide by the intermediary guidelines.

Minister of State (MoS) for IT Rajeev Chandrashekar has also been very vocal on the need to regulate and curb the influence of Big Tech. Additionally, a nine-member expert committee with the likes of Nandan Nilekani and National Health Authority Chief and Former Aadhar head RS Sharma has just been formed to suggest measures to end the digital monopoly of e-commerce websites like Amazon and provide a level playing field to vendors. It would be good to remember that the change of ministers is no indication of a change of agenda under this government.

5. Retaining the Agriculture and Finance Ministers

While the removal of 12 ministers was much spoken about, the retainment of the Agriculture Minister even after the massive farmer protests and Finance Minister in spite of the Opposition's demand for change reveals a lot about the government's thinking. It shows that the Modi government stands 100 per cent by the revolutionary farm laws, and while it is open to negotiating with farmers on fineprint, there is no turning the clock on these reforms.

Also, the fact that Nirmala Sitharaman has not just been retained as Finance Minister but is now also entrusted with the Department of Public Enterprises reiterates the confidence that she enjoys of the PM. This also shows the government is set on its reformist agenda of privatisation of PSUs in the non-strategic sectors and encouraging more private participation.

6. Emphasis on diversity, youth and skills

With two-thirds of the council from SC/ST/OBC and minority communities and 11 women ministers, the highest in 17 years, PM Modi has consciously striven to show the BJP’s bench strength as a reflection of India’s diversity.

The average age of the Cabinet has also come down with the youngest minister Nisith Pramanik being just 35 years of age. This young Lok Sabha MP, who was allotted MoS in Home Ministry in addition to Sports and Youth Affairs, has raised eyebrows as he is from West Bengal, whose government has been slammed by NHRC fact-finding committee for the post-poll violence in the state.

Educational qualifications of the ministers in the council have received attention, with social media posts highlighting the fact that the council now has 13 lawyers, six doctors, seven doctorates, five engineers, seven former civil servants and three MBAs. That the Council of Ministers now has five former Chief Ministers and multiple state ministers in its rank also underscores the fact that politicians with administrative heft are being inducted to deal with the challenges in the post-pandemic world.

7. A message to China? 

Many ministers openly critical of China, like Meenakshi Lekhi who attended the swearing-in ceremony of the Taiwan President, and Rajeev Chandrashekar who raised in Parliament the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the creation and release of Covid, have been made ministers. Meenakshi Lekhi has been made Mos in Ministry of External Affairs while Rajeev Chandrashekar has been made MoS in Information and Technology, both ministries which are at the forefront of taking on China.

Kiren Rijiju, hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own, has been given the crucial post of Law and Justice with Cabinet rank.

This — combined with the fact the PM Modi acknowledged speaking with the Dalai Lama publicly for the first time since 2014 on the occasion of His Holiness's 86th birthday — makes this more than a sheer coincidence.

Straddling multiple requirements of ensuring diversity, talent, youth, experience and politics, PM Modi has overhauled the Cabinet as the mid-term of his current term nears. The Ministers inducted have also hit the ground running with the message that performance alone matters.

Also Read: A wishlist for PM Narendra Modi's Cabinet reshuffle

Writer

Unnikrishnan Nagarajan Unnikrishnan Nagarajan @unnikrishnan_n_

The author is a public policy researcher based out of New Delhi and Chennai.

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