Cabinet rejig offers no reset of governance : The Tribune India

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Cabinet rejig offers no reset of governance

The departure of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and his deputy is a tacit admission that the government bungled most tragically in Covid’s second wave which resulted in untold misery and deaths across the country. However, it is no secret that this is a highly centralised government driven by the PMO; most ministers don’t act without clearance from the top, and hence, the blame can’t be pinned on the Health Minister alone.

Cabinet rejig offers no reset of governance

Strategy: The exit of key ministers insulates the top leadership from the failures and controversies surrounding the government. PTI



Zoya Hasan

Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, JNU

THE massive Union Cabinet reshuffle has taken place at a moment when the nation faces major crises in the spheres of economy, health, education and external security, and in consequence, a decline in the support for the ruling dispensation. Losing West Bengal after the Prime Minister and Home Minister had campaigned intensively, putting aside questions of governance and the Covid pandemic, was a big blow for the ruling party. The growing international criticism of its dismal record on free speech and human rights and the embarrassing global attention received by the handling of the second wave of the pandemic have been disconcerting for the government. This defines the political context of the Cabinet expansion.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters and commentators want us to believe that the major overhaul of the council of ministers was an attempt to improve governance by the induction of professionally and educationally qualified persons. The colossal failure of governance has been obvious in crucial areas of health, education, labour and employment. The removal of 12 ministers, including from these three ministries, is an admission of governmental floundering, although none of them have owned responsibility. The departure of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and his deputy, Ashwini Choubey, is a tacit admission that the government bungled most tragically in the second wave which resulted in untold misery and deaths across the country. However, it is no secret that this is a highly centralised government driven by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), most ministers don’t act without clearance from the top, and hence, the blame cannot be pinned on the Health Minister alone. Still, the exit of important ministers insulates the top leadership from the failures and controversies surrounding the government and distances it from the discontent over the health crisis and medical shortages during the pandemic and the rising levels of unemployment and poverty.

If there is one message that emerges from the ministerial reshuffle and expansion, it is this: The reset was a political exercise with focus on states going to the polls next year. Elections to the Assemblies of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and a few others are due in 2022 and to Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana in 2023. The more interesting dimension of this political exercise is the elaborate attention given to the caste configuration of the Cabinet and the manner in which it was publicised by the BJP. For the first time, the press briefing had drawn the media’s attention to the caste composition of the Cabinet — 12 ministers belonging to Scheduled Castes, eight to Scheduled Tribes and 27 OBCs. No previous government has briefed the media on the caste composition of the Cabinet. This was odd for a party defined by the ideology of Hindutva which seeks to unite the Hindu majority as opposed to the politics of identity, practised by its opponents, that the BJP claims exacerbates divisions in Hindu society. But for the BJP, Hindu unity is based on an external enemy outside the majority community against whom all Hindus can unite. The idea is to bring together Hindus under the banner of Hindutva, while painting Muslims as the ‘other’. There’s no contradiction here between caste accommodation and communal majorities, actually the two seem to go hand in hand. Hindutva politics has been advanced lately by mobilising layers of the OBC and Dalit votes that have emerged as the biggest supporters of the ruling party.

The new Cabinet is in step with this strategy of giving greater representation to OBCs and Dalits to keep them under the Hindutva umbrella. In fact, the reshuffle reinforces this strategy which has been the key to the party’s political success in north India, especially in Uttar Pradesh. With 14 ministers, the state now accounts for the largest chunk of ministers. Every sixth Indian is from Uttar Pradesh but every fifth minister in the Cabinet is from this politically crucial state. More significantly, the majority of the new ministers are from the non-upper castes. It’s clear the accommodation of OBCs in view of the Assembly elections in 2022 appeared to weigh heavily in the reshuffle. Similar considerations of social engineering have influenced inductions from other states.

Careful social engineering and the widely discussed details of the caste composition of the Cabinet revamp have effectively positioned the BJP as a champion of the OBCs, which is crucial to the maintenance of its dominance of Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi-speaking states, where the combination of caste and communal politics helps to unite these microscopic groupings. Equally significant in this regard is the exclusion of Muslims. The 77-member Cabinet has one Muslim, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the old warhorse from the Vajpayee era. None among the newly inducted 43 ministers is a Muslim. The exclusion of Muslims is not surprising but that it has gone unnoticed is somewhat surprising. But whether all this will offset the resentment that has been brewing with the loss of lives and livelihoods and the disastrous management of the second wave in various states, particularly Uttar Pradesh, is not known yet. If the party fails to retain UP, its political dominance will be shaken.

For the record, the exit and expansion is intended to beef up the governance deficit and rev up the economy. However, after re-election in 2019, the BJP government has prioritised the Hindutva project and issues such as Kashmir, the Ram temple, the Citizenship Act amendments, rather than developmental ones. There’s no indication that these priorities will be shelved. Neither is there any indication that the highly centralised PMO-centric governance system will change to a more decentralised one. The political model driven by caste-driven inclusion and communally-driven exclusion is well entrenched. If administrative principles and political priorities do not change, significant alterations to the council of ministers can change the balance of power within the BJP, but cannot bring about the required changes necessary to fix the challenges facing India’s economy and polity.


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