This Article is From Jul 08, 2021

Opinion: Modi Drops His Health Minister. Can India Get Its Shots Now?

Narendra Modi has rearranged his cabinet, but the changes give no indication of a meaningful sharing of power. Within the trappings of a parliamentary democracy, India's prime minister will probably continue with his trademark presidential style of governance. For the country of 1.4 billion people, though, the most immediate question is: Can the new Team Modi get everyone inoculated quickly, reopen schools and bring back jobs? 

Replacing Health Minister Harsh Vardhan with Mansukh Mandaviya, a 49-year-old politician from Modi's home state of Gujarat, is the most significant element of Wednesday night's reshuffle. It's being seen as the closest the Indian government would ever come to acknowledging its callous unpreparedness for the deadly second wave of the pandemic that has killed nearly 250,000 people.

The real toll, according to researchers who are tabulating excess deaths state by state, has been much higher. Modi, who puts his picture on vaccination certificates, remains a popular leader. But he's under a lot of pressure to step up inoculation, which has so far covered only 5% of the population with the required two doses.

There's no change in the finance and commerce teams, so presumably Modi is happy with the way the economy is being managed, even though more than 200 million workers have gone back to earning less than the minimum wage, or $5 a day. A combination of loose fiscal and monetary policies is attracting day traders to a sizzling stock market. The urban poor, however, have gotten very little government support besides free wheat and rice to struggle through lockdowns, loss of livelihoods and hospitalization expenses. For consumers restless with high petrol prices feeding into inflation, there's a new oil minister. Just how former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri will persuade a resource-strapped finance ministry to lower high petroleum taxes is anybody's guess.

Twitter Inc. might hope for a de-escalation in its fraught relationship with the government, which has accused it of non-compliance with local rules. (The U.S. social media firm has asked for more time.) Ravi Shankar Prasad, the information technology minister who led the charge against the microblogging site, has been dropped. Ashwini Vaishnaw, a Wharton MBA and former civil servant who will replace Prasad, must avoid an embarrassing showdown that wouldn't have gone unnoticed in Washington.

Still, the biggest challenge is on the health front. Modi must be able to deliver herd immunity - via inoculation and not infection - before he makes a play for power in next year's crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh. India's most-populous state witnessed some of the worst shortages of hospital beds and oxygen in April and May.

With economic activity returning to almost normal, the risk of fresh Covid-19 waves - and of localized lockdowns - is also rising. Insufficient availability of vaccines is more than just a short-term threat to lives and livelihoods. Without shots, Dharmendra Pradhan, who moves to education from oil, can't really reopen schools that have been closed for more than a year, tilting an already uneven playing field further against the poor. 

With so much confronting them, the new ministers hopefully won't spend all their time on social media propaganda, which for many has become synonymous with work. But if Modi gives them no real authority, maybe that's what they'll be forced to do.

(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.)   

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