Modi-Shah - 2 Tigers, 1 Mountain. Where Does That Leave Rajnath?

"One Mountain Cannot Contain Two Tigers." Is this Chinese saying going to become salient as Narendra Modi's second innings, which has just begun, progresses? Or will Modi and Amit Shah prove it wrong?

There cannot be two very strong personalities leading a country. All paramount leaders in the world have known the meaning of this saying, even though they may not have been familiar with its Chinese origin. Xi Jinping, whose speeches are peppered with quotations from Chinese classics and folk tales, knows it. And so do Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Surely, Prime Minister Modi also knows it. His three-term Chief Ministership in Gujarat and his first term in South Block are ample testimony to this.

Nevertheless, something uncharacteristic has happened in the first fortnight of his second term in office. Yesterday, in the morning, came the news that the Prime Minister has set up two important new cabinet committees - one on investment and growth, and the other on employment and skill development. The decision was widely welcomed. After all, it meant that the Modi government was quick in acknowledging what the Congress had been saying aloud during the election campaign - the economy is suffering from a slowdown (GDP growth rate in the last quarter has slipped to 5.8 %, over 1 percentage point below the forecast for 2019) and unemployment has reached an all-time high (the Labour Ministry finally admitted that joblessness now is at the highest level in the last 45 years).

However, there was something abnormal in the political signal sent by this announcement. Amit Shah, the new Home Minister in the Modi government, was included in both committees, even though his Home portfolio does not have any direct bearing on the mandates of the two economy-related panels. On the other hand, the name of Rajnath Singh, who was shifted from his earlier ministry of Home to Defence, was missing in both committees. The omission of Rajnath Singh's name was even more glaring in another crucial body - the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, whose importance in the overall functioning of the government is next only to that of the Cabinet Committee on Security. As Defence Minister, he naturally had a place in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which, as per custom, also has the Home Minister. But Shah had clearly stolen the limelight from him because the configuration of the new cabinet panels showed that his authority would now be seen in both the political and economic arenas of Modi's 'New India'. It is also incontrovertible that even after he steps down from the office of President of the BJP, his clout in party affairs will continue to be next only to Modi's.

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Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has been added to a number of key cabinet committees after a list put out in the morning named him in only two panels

Suddenly, political and media circles in the country were abuzz with speculation: does this mean demotion for Rajnath Singh in Modi 2.0? Does this also mean the anointment of Amit Shah as the de facto Number 2 in the new Modi government, obscuring the fact that Rajnath Singh was second to the Prime Minister in taking his oath at Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 30?

Speculation is a corrosive agent in any organisation, most of all at top levels of a government. It creates suspicion inside, confusion outside. It gives birth to whispers which go viral fast and wide, accumulating new ideas and imaginings along the way. Which is why no paramount leader permits the birth and spread of conjectures and rumours. One of the admirable aspects of Modi's first term in office was that it gave no scope at all for any kind of speculation about the cohesiveness of his power structure. His was the sole voice that mattered, and nobody indulged in discussions about who was Number 2 in his government, because there simply was no Number 2. 

Is there going to be a change in the style and substance of the functioning of the Modi government now? It is too early to tell. However, there are already early signals that some things - maybe, some very crucial things - could change over the next five years. Amit Shah is widely being seen as the Vice Captain of the new Team Modi, just as he was indeed the unquestioned deputy to Modi during the election campaign. Not only those within the Sangh Parivar, but even its critics (who detest his aggressively communal politics), have acknowledged Shah's immense contribution to the humongous size of the BJP's poll victory. 

Speaking in a panel discussion on NDTV, Pawan Verma, an erudite leader of the Janata Dal (United), suggested that Modi should appoint Shah as Deputy Prime Minister. Speculation has already begun that Shah could succeed Modi in 2024, something that is also hinted by his body language and the media's attitude towards him.

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Amit Shah, PM Modi and Rajnath Singh at the swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan

The real question is whether Modi and Shah can disprove the Chinese saying to show that "One Mountain Can Contain Two Tigers". It could well be that Modi himself is consciously grooming Shah to be his trusted deputy. It is also possible that Modi wants to leave the mundane aspects of administration and political management to his long-time confidante, and wishes to focus his energies on some strategic goals.

In the absence of facts and reliable pointers, there is no point in guessing how Modi 2.0 will evolve. However, one fact is already before us. The Modi government has uncharacteristically stumbled in the formation of the two new cabinet committees, in addition to composition of some old committees. The Indian Express captured it well in its banner headline today - "All in a day's work: Morning order omits Rajnath from key panels, he's in by night". The nation does not know what exactly transpired between morning and night, but the government changed its own notification to accommodate the Defence Minister in four cabinet panels. Thus, in addition to the ones on security and economic affairs, Rajnath Singh has now become a member of the committees on political affairs, parliamentary affairs, investment and growth, and employment and skill development.

Now, look at the contrast. Amit Shah, whose ministerial life at the centre is only eight days old as of today (June 7), sits on eight cabinet committees. Who can deny that he is Tiger No.2 on the mountain in the national capital called Raisina Hill?

(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)

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