July 9, 2021

Asia

INDIA: Fixing the optics by changing the faces but challenges persist

BY Aditi Phadnis

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( 4 mins)
  • A comprehensive reshuffle of federal government departments and ministers attempts to fix responsibility and refurbish the government’s image.
  • Upcoming elections in several states were an important driver.

Conceding that India’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic had been suboptimal, and buffeted by electoral reverses, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reshuffled the cabinet and the administration, changing ministers and restructuring ministries in the hope of signaling that his government means business.

In the first reshuffle of the council of ministers since he started his second term in 2019, Modi left the four big ministries and their incumbents intact – Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, Home Minister Amit Shah and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh.

However, he chopped and changed the portfolios of almost all others, sacking entire teams in the health and education ministries. Mansukh Mandaviya, the new health minister, has been elevated because he impressed the prime minister with his understanding of global pharma trends while in charge of the ministry of pharmaceuticals. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had to pay the political price for the government’s struggles to cope with a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections and was told resign along with his deputy.

What came as a big shock was the sacking of Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology and Law & Justice Ravishankar Prasad – not because he was a crowd puller or a mass leader but because of the strident position he had taken against big tech, including social media giants such as Facebook and WhatsApp for their refusal to compromise on encryption in consonance with local laws, even as India awaits laws on personal data protection. However, his successor, Ashwini Vaishnaw, a former bureaucrat and Wharton alumnus made it clear that these companies needed to comply with Indian laws if they wanted to stay on in India, a signal that the government would continue to tangle with big tech, even if somewhat less intrusively.

Electoral calculations

The upcoming elections (February and March 2022) in half a dozen states including Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous province, was a contributing factor to the sweeping reshuffle. Several communities that had been under-represented were accommodated by including their leaders in the council of ministers. With 43 new ministers sworn in, the new cabinet will have 77 members, excluding the prime minister.

While the reshuffle had politics at its heart, Modi sent two key signals, namely that those who had been responsible for pandemic mismanagement had been removed, and that the government now means business.

The Department of Public Enterprises (DPE), which is the ministry responsible for many state-owned businesses has been moved to the Ministry of Finance, so that privatization of these enterprises becomes easier. A new ministry for cooperatives has been created to formulate new policies for the sector, which is cash-rich and politically powerful but badly managed. Other ministries have been rationalized – for instance, combining textiles with trade under a single minister – to create synergies.

All of this was done to create the impression that the business of governing India is under new management. Barring the small state of Puducherry, the ruling BJP-led alliance was unable to form a government in any of the states where polls were held in the last few months. In Kerala, its vote share dropped. Amid widespread anger in UP, voiced by some ministers themselves (most of whom have been dropped) over the mismanagement of the pandemic, the party is jittery about its prospects. It cannot afford to face reverses in the state, which represents a solid block of about 15% of all seats in the lower house. Faced with unemployment, erosion of household incomes, unanticipated health expenditure and loss of earning members, the countryside has begun asking questions about responsibility and accountability. The reshuffle is an attempt to begin to answer those questions.

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