Narendra Modi is in an unenviable position. There are fears that a third wave of COVID-19 may hit India.
On top of that - a slow kick-start of economy, urgent need to inject billions of rupees in the form of stimulus in rural India to increase purchasing, staggering level of unemployment due to fatal lockdowns, India's Prime Minister also faces toxic political battles. Some surveys suggest that Modi’s personal popularity has also taken the hit since 2019.
All of this requires political damage control, repairing of economy, resetting of national goals and above all, a dramatic improvement in governance to deliver on the promised development.
For the last several days, Narendra Modi is making report cards of his cabinet ministers and is about to reshuffle his cabinet, which is already more than 55 strong.
The cabinet reshuffle and expansion is likely to come around June 20 or soon after. While the rejig was long overdue, the government wanted to wait until the coronavirus infection came under control.
Making up for lost opportunities
For Modi, who has just three years left to make up for lost opportunities in his second term as Prime Minister, this may be the right time for course correction.
Reports quoting top government sources say that five review meetings have already taken place, where the cabinet ministers met the Prime Minister to present their side and get right tick-marks in all boxes.
In debates veering around improving governance, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president J P Nadda has been present too, giving him the necessary political heft.
By letting the media and people know that Modi is “reviewing performance” of his ministers, a political message has been signalled.
A source in the government told Gulf News, “Prime Minister asked tough questions to the ministers to weigh goals of their respective ministries and their actual achievements."
Close to nine central ministers were in the West Bengal, handling the assembly election campaigning. They were asked to show how their respective ministries were functioning when they were away. Modi has also reviewed the level of dependency on bureaucrats by various ministers.
Under India’s constitutional arrangement, the Prime Minister has the prerogative to select the cabinet. Two of Modi's predecessors - Dr Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to succumb to external influences on various degrees. However, given his solid mandate, Modi is in a stronger position.
Despite having the luxury to select his team, Modi has faced criticism since 2014 that his team lacks superior professional talent and some of his cabinet ministers have lost touch with the masses. According to highly placed sources, one minister was bluntly told that he should meet people (at least) equal to the number of his Twitter followers.
A non-communicative centre
Ironically during India’s second surge of COVID-19, the central government was non-communicative for close to three weeks.
When I asked one of the BJP politicians why there were no press conferences by senior cabinet minister during the peak of the crisis, he remarked, “In the middle of the devastating storm, you don’t fly kites. We needed to work to set things right, provide logistics. We did it in just 20 days. Oxygen supply improved in less than 20 days.”
The worst of the second surge seems to be over in India and people now have high expectations from the government after the unforgettable experiences of the pandemic when some patients died due to scarcity of medical oxygen.
Ironically the talk of cabinet reshuffle always kick-starts hyper political activity in the ruling party. On June 16, when Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, came to Delhi and met Modi, the political temperature in Bhopal rose.
The potential cabinet reshuffle has a political context too. It is being done to accommodate some regional parties like Janta Dal-United of Bihar. There are more than half a dozen ministries that needs better talent too.
Piyush Goyal, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Hardeep Singh Puri and Mansukh bhai Mandavia are handling more than one portfolio. They are expected to lose one of their ministries.
Some vacancies are also needed to be filled up because of the demise of leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the exit of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Shiv Sena’s from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
New faces in Modi cabinet?
In Delhi, speculation is rife that BJP lawmaker Varun Gandhi and former diplomat Akbaruddin might be inducted but all of this is up in the air. Modi’s penchant for throwing surprises is such that nobody can guess the final shape of India's new cabinet.
However, some logic is so compelling that even Modi would not be able to avoid it. First and foremost is the need to include important caste-based leaders from Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due early next year.
Two, the farmer’s agitation has eroded BJP’s base in Western UP, Punjab and Haryana. To soothe the damage the strong farmer’s agitation, the Punjabi and the Jat leaders may be placated.
Also, in the post-COVID era, Modi needs smart political brains to lead Health, Human Resource Development (Education), Agriculture and Law ministries.
It is probable that Modi may not make dramatic changes in the top four or five ministries. The propsoed change will be largely to balance political goals and go confidently into state elections in the coming 18 months.
Improving the working of various ministries - to meet the challenges of India's financial crisis - will weigh on the Prime Minister’s mind. One can expect a controlled cabinet reshuffle with a Modi imprint writ large over it.