Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s induction as the minister of external affairs has been the biggest surprise.
After his historic victory in the recent parliamentary elections, in putting together his new Cabinet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rewarded experience, performance record and loyalty and also experimented with many new faces. Amit Shah’s imprint is visible in the representation from Odisha and West Bengal where the BJP has done well, and Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, where Assembly elections will take place shortly. Even Kerala, where BJP workers have lost lives, has got a minister: V. Muraleedharan. Mr Shah has played a crucial role in addressing allies’ demands and regional expectations.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s induction as the minister of external affairs has been the biggest surprise. One of the sharpest minds of the IFS, Mr Jaishankar enjoys a close rapport with Mr Modi, as did Brajesh Mishra, once with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He has been instrumental in several foreign policy initiatives of Mr Modi during his tenure as foreign secretary, including at the Wuhan informal summit with the Chinese President and the resolution of the Doklam impasse. It is certainly prudent on the Prime Minister’s part to have a safe pair of hands of a polished and seasoned diplomat who is on the same page and follows a similar working style. Having served both in Washington and Beijing and overseen the unfolding of Mr Modi’s foreign policy from the headquarters, Mr Jaishankar is an excellent choice — he should steady relations with the US and China, fast-track the Act East policy, broaden outreach with Africa and South America and navigate imaginatively with the EU, now undergoing virtual turmoil. He can also help execute Mr Modi’s new initiative — Nara — aimed at marrying national aspirations with regional aspirations. Mr Jaishankar has leapfrogged to the Cabinet minister’s chair in a single jump, which three foreign secretaries — J.N. Dixit, Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon — couldn’t!
Arun Jaitley, who has opted out on health grounds, will be missed. A great deal of credit for the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, GST and direct transfer to the beneficiary, setting up a banking board, addressing NPAs and the implementation of the Jan Dhan Yojana should go to him. He was a suave, articulate and friendly face of the BJP.
The Prime Minister’s choice of Nirmala Sitharaman to step into Mr Jaitley’s big shoes, dispelling speculation about Amit Shah or Piyush Goyal getting the job, has been another big surprise. Starting as a combative and articulate spokesperson, it has been a rise and rise for Ms Sitharaman. Her stints as minister of state in the ministries of finance, commerce and industry and her impressive record as defence minister might have weighed in her favour. Besides, she enjoys the trust of Mr Modi as well as the former finance minister, Mr Jaitley.
Nitin Gadkari has proved his mettle. He has completed numerous infrastructure projects, especially highways/expressways. He returns to his ministries with MSMEs added to his platter. Reputed as a go-getter, he has his role cut out.
Rajnath Singh makes way for the BJP president, Amit Shah, who emerges as a powerful number two in Mr Modi’s Cabinet. With the crucial role in the selection of governors and the police forces under his command, Mr Shah will play a major role in internal security and counter-terrorism and taking advantage of political turbulence in the states under Opposition governments. His detractors, like the Delhi chief minister, should be concerned. With his strong views on Articles 370 and 35A and the Citizenship Bill, Mr Shah can invite ire from the BJP’s opponents. His selection reflects the convergence of his and Mr Modi’s strategic priorities for the BJP.
As the new defence minister (an obvious demotion), Mr Rajnath Singh can address long wishlists of inventories of the three wings of the defence forces. Going beyond the burgeoning imports of defence equipment from the US, we must press for joint research and joint production. It might be a good idea for the new defence minister to advise the top brass of the Army to shun TV cameras unless it is most unavoidable. Gen. Bipin Rawat has probably appeared on TV more often than Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw!
The recent mess in the civil aviation sector and the increasingly strident criticism of India’s high tariffs by the United States might have cost Suresh Prabhu, an honest, hardworking technocrat, his job.
The decision on inducting Ramesh Pokhriyal, a well-known Hindi poet and former chief minister of Uttarakhand, believed to be close to Mr Shah and yoga guru Baba Randev, as HRD minister, is significant. HRD is much more than changing curriculums and promoting Hindi. It will need delicate handling of higher education, private universities and restive university campuses.
Piyush Goyal returns to Rail Bhavan with the additional charge of the ministry of commerce and industry. Obviously, the Prime Minister rates him high, though he might induct a full-time commerce and industry minister later.
Prakash Javadekar returns to his earlier portfolios of I&B minister and minister of environment, forest and climate change. Smriti Irani, the giantkiller of Amethi, gets back her portfolios of minister of textiles and minister of women and child development. Both are trusted lieutenants of Mr Modi.
His high performance brings Hardeep Singh Puri back to the housing and urban affairs ministry. As the new civil aviation minister, he has to bring about stability in this sector and facilitate disinvestment from Air India.
Maneka Gandhi’s comments about Muslim voters during an election rally might have sealed her fate. Mahesh Sharma’s interaction with the alleged attackers of Mohammad Akhlaq had drawn a lot of flak for the BJP. His omission could be a signal to the minority community.
Narendra Tomar is a good choice to head the ministry of agriculture, farmers’ welfare, rural development and panchayati raj. Addressing agricultural distress is a priority. The decision to extend the PM Kisan Samman Yojana to over 14 crore farmers and introduce the PM Pension Yojana for five crore farmers over 60 years should partly alleviate farmers’ distress.
The creation of a separate jal shakti ministry to conserve rivers and other water resources is laudable.
Hindus comprise 91.4 per cent of the members of the new Cabinet and1.7 per cent are Muslims; the upper castes account for 56.9 per cent and the dalits for 10.3 per cent.
Ultimately, it is Mr Modi’s strong, dynamic, inspiring and visionary leadership that matters. He always oozes with energy and brims with new ideas. He has dared to introduce more new schemes than most Prime Ministers. Even if 60 per cent of these get implemented, India will be transformed beyond recognition.
The Prime Minister’s visit to the war memorial before getting sworn in and the first decision of the new Cabinet to increase the amount for children of members of the armed forces, paramilitary forces and the Railway Protection Force killed in the line of duty in the Prime Minister’s scholarship scheme under the National Defence Fund will solidify Mr Modi’s image as the Prime Minister who stands with the armed forces/paramilitary forces.
With his stature and authority, Mr Modi can afford to debar the hotheads of the BJP from making provocative statements. He should also win over the minorities with proactive and holistic policies.
In the context of unflattering news of high rates of unemployment and the lowest rate of GDP growth in the last quarter, Professor Arvind Panagariya’s (Columbia University) comments deserve a mention: “Private entrepreneurs are the true drivers of economic growth, not the government... it must limit its responsibility to creating a healthy business environment by bringing about appropriate changes in laws, rules and procedures and business should take responsibility for job creation and production activity.”
As he opens his new innings, we must wish the Prime Minister well. But he must remember that unless his lofty promises are fulfilled and people can see concrete results, the public mood might change with unforeseen consequences.