Cabinet Reshuffle 2016: For Policy or for the Party?

The Modi Government today appointed nineteen new state ministers, removed five and reassigned a number of key ministries. The reshuffle is motivated both by politics and policy, and has considerably expanded the council of ministers.

Gearing up for State Assembly Elections

The upcoming Assembly Elections in Uttar Pradesh likely figured prominently in the list of appointees. UP has the single largest State Assembly in India with 403 seats. Republican Party of India’s Ramdas Athawale, a Dalit leader from Maharashtra for instance has been appointed Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment.  The list of Dalit appointees as State Ministers also includes BJP’s Ajay Tamta (Textiles), Arjun Ram Meghwal (Finance for Corporate Affairs), Krishna Raj (Women and Child Development) and Ramesh Chandappa Jigjinagi (Drinking Water and Sanitation).

Also prominently UP-geared is the appointment of Anupriya Patel as Minister of State, Family Health and Welfare. Patel is a leader of UP-based party Apna Dal, and daughter of current party chief Krishna Patel. The two are currently engaged in a court case over control of the party. Anupriya Patel is likely to merge or ally Apna Dal with the BJP for the state elections. Patel also brings in her caste background as an OBC Kurmi, another large voter base in UP.

Bringing in Diversity

Modi’s Cabinet of Ministers is overwhelmingly upper-middle caste and skewed toward a few states. While there has been no major change in the latter, the inclusion of Dalit, OBC, Muslim and other minority leaders can be seen as an attempt by Modi to dispel the miasma of exclusion that surrounds the BJP. MJ Akbar for instance, a prominent Muslim journalist and Rajya Sabha MP, has been appointed Minister of State, External Affairs. 

No Appetite for Controversy

The Cabinet Reshuffle also saw the removal of five Union Cabinet Ministers: Nihalchand Meghawal, Ram Shankar Katheria, Sanwar Lal Jat, Manuskhbhai D Vasva and M K Kundariya. Meghawal was likely removed due to rape charges leveled against him in June 2014. Katheria, meanwhile, was embroiled in controversy earlier this year over hate-speech and incitement to violence directed against the Muslim community.

In addition to these changes, Smriti Irani has been shifted to the Textiles Department and her portfolio, Human Resource Development has been handed over to Prakash Javadekar. Javadekar has been elevated to full Cabinet ranking. Irani’s stint as HRD Minister began with criticism of her lack of educational qualifications to handle the ministry. A number of controversial changes were implemented under her tenure, including the rollback of the heatedly-debated Four-Year Undergraduate Programme of Delhi University. She was also accused of mishandling the row over Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide.

Maximum Government?

There have been some disappointments during the reshuffle. Although energy sector reforms have been a crucial part of Modi’s development rhetoric, the Ministries of Coal, Power and New and Renewable Energy remain under a Minister of State (Independent Charge), with Piyush Goyal not having been elevated to full Cabinet rank. Goyal’s tenure saw the deregulation of the coal sector and massive expansion in solar energy investment.

Another issue raised has been the apparent reversal of Modi’s “Maximum Governance, Minimum Government” promise. A large council of ministers and the growing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s hands send troubling signals: an intolerance of opposition and a lack of transparency.