This Article is From Jun 02, 2019

Modi 2.0 Signals Clipping Of Wings For Doval

It may seem unnecessary, or even irrelevant, to discuss Narendra Modi's choice of ministers for his second term as Prime Minister. After all, one of the most obvious aspects of his leadership style is the centralisation of power - early on in his first term, he made it clear to the seniormost bureaucrat in each ministry that they were now empowered to speak directly to the Prime Minister's Office, and undercut their minister if necessary. After five years in South Block, the Prime Minister now likely has solid control over which civil servant goes where - and thus the bureaucracy now reports to him, and not to their ministers.

And yet, the Prime Minister's choices are worth examining - if for no other reason than  Amit Shah and he reportedly spent a great deal of time on it. Shah himself got the Home Ministry. This, at the union level, is not quite as powerful as it is in a state government - Shah was Chief Minister Modi's Home Minister for some years - since there is no police force, with the notable exception of those in territories such as Delhi, that he will directly control. But there is the intelligence services, and counter-terror operations, as well as, no doubt, action against the "infiltrators" and "termites" that Shah has so controversially targeted. Before the portfolios were announced, Delhi was rife with rumours that Shah wished to become Finance Minister. Frankly, that might have been an actually useful location for his famed attention to detail - outgoing finance minister Arun Jaitley is many things, but unlike P Chidambaram, is not a details man. Perhaps those rumours were unfounded but what is clear now is Shah is not Finance Minister - the one position that, because of its ability to control funds, has an impact on every other ministry.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath this week, along with 57 other ministers. 

That position instead went to Nirmala Sitharaman. This is in many ways a puzzling choice. Sitharaman has not been a standout in the Defence Ministry, except for her strong defence of the Rafale deal - surely not a qualification for the job of Finance Minister. But it is in the Commerce Ministry, where she was for some years during Modi's first term, that we should turn for clues to how she will manage as Finance Minister. And here the record is not encouraging. Sitharaman's Commerce Ministry was inward-looking and presided over a turn away from trade agreements. During her tenure - and over Modi's first term generally - Indian exports performed very poorly, barely increasing in real terms and doing markedly worse than those of comparable economies such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. If nothing else, the choice of Sitharaman signals Modi's renewed commitment to statism and to Hindutva socialism.


The National Security Advisor was a man for all seasons in Modi's first term

A more encouraging choice, if as surprising, is that of S Jaishankar as Foreign Minister. Jaishankar distinguished himself as Foreign Secretary, where he managed both the personal and the substantive aspects of the Modi government's diplomacy with consummate skill. Modi has an unfortunate tendency to rely excessively on bureaucratic advice and action. But Jaishankar is not an ordinary bureaucrat, he has an unusual breadth of vision and a clear-eyed view of India's capabilities and requirements. Indian foreign policy faces multiple challenges: from managing its position as Trump upends the global economic order to dealing with Chinese attempts to influence India's immediate neighbourhood. There is every hope that Jaishankar, at least, will not allow India's foreign policy to become Pakistan-centric once again. This might not have been the case if the portfolio had been handed to a run-of-the-mill politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many of us will be saddened that Sushma Swaraj, who brought a certain human touch - and some humour - to the role, will no longer be serving in the cabinet. The departure of both Swaraj and Jaitley, politicians who have spent their lifetime in the corridors of power in Delhi, will make the second Modi administration a little less accessible than the first.

A big loser in this reshuffle surely is Ajit Doval. The National Security Advisor was a man for all seasons in Modi's first term - he ran the intelligence apparatus and managed foreign policy strategy. But now, for the first, there will be Amit Shah as Home Minister and for the second, there is Foreign Minister Jaishankar. Doval definitely has less room than he did earlier. And perhaps that is a good thing. Certainly, there needed to be some accountability for the awful mis-steps towards the end of Modi's first term, not least the Pulwama attack. I would like to believe that Doval's wings have been clipped as a form of accountability for those errors.

The rest of the council of ministers is as uninspiring as you would expect, given the quality of parliamentarians in the BJP. Emblematic of their quality is the new Education Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, who has said that astrology is the greatest of sciences and that all real science is dwarfed by its insight. Given India's struggles with educating and skilling its people, one wonders if, out of millions of eligible candidates, India's all-powerful Prime Minister really thought that someone who believes that astrology is the queen of sciences was his best choice. Or perhaps that is a qualification and not a disqualification.

The one minister who got the biggest cheer during the swearing-in ceremony was Pratap Sarangi from Odisha. Sarangi has drawn adulation on social media for his simple lifestyle. In the process, it appears that we have forgotten who and what he stands for; he has multiple cases against him for rioting and causing communal division and strife as well as for extortion. He was coordinator for the Bajrang Dal in Odisha when Graham Staines and two children were burnt alive by a Hindutva mob; it was on his unsupported word alone that the Bajrang Dal was allowed to escape investigation for the crime.

A JNU socialist in Finance, an astrology-lover as Education Minister, a former Bajrang Dal leader - this is not a council of ministers that represents 21st-century India. Or does it?

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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