I can’t remember in recent years when a Prime Minister sent a more sharp message through an exercise which is his sole prerogative; cabinet reshuffle!
Of course Manmohan Singh never had the freedom , his council of ministers being a mix of diktats he got from Sonia Gandhi and coalition supremos like K. Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar etc. Atal Behari Vajpayee too exercised this prerogative sparingly like when he insisted and got Jaswant Singh as his finance minister despite opposition from the Swadeshi lobby and RSS. Mostly it was a consultative exercise between Vajpayee, Advani, RSS chief Rajju Bhaiya and alliance partners. The United Front Prime Ministers –Deve Gowda and I K Gujral–they were hardly prime ministers in that sense! The last time someone behaved like a Prime Minister was P V Narsimha Rao who ran his minority government with a fair degree of independence and authority through a mix of cunning, corruption and real politic. That was more then 20 years ago and for all his brahmanical guile Narsimha Rao had to constantly watch over his shoulders and thus was not always his master.
Modi suffers from no such handicaps. He has used this cabinet reshuffle both to reiterate a few points as also to make a few new ones.
That he is his own boss is something we all knew. He has reemphasised it. By virtually sacking Smriti Irani. By clipping the wings of Arun Jaitley , Ravi Shanker Prasad. By demoting Jayant Sinha, Mahesh Sharma , Sadanand Gowda etc and promoting the quiet doers like Prakash Javdekar and Manoj Sinha. Piyush Goyal may not have got a cabinet rank but he will be looking after important infrastructure portfolios like coal,power,renewable energy and mines.
So the message is clear; proximity, sycophancy, media management etc will not work. Performance will count and merit will be rewarded. Most of the new inductees are educated and professionals; doctors, lawyers , conservationists, ex bureaucrats and former journalists.
That someone like M J Akbar, a bitter critic of Prime Minister Modi till not long ago, will now be India’s voice and face across the world as MOS external affairs is a signal for me. As credentials go I can’t think of anyone more suited for the job then the suave, sophisticated, articulate and the liberal modern face of Indian Muslims, M J Akbar. The PM could been petty minded –as many remain convinced that he is –but the fact that Modi is willing to forget, forgive and move on bodes well for his government as well as the country.
The other message is don’t mess with him and don’t take him for granted. Also don’t become an embarrassment. Smriti Irani perhaps suffered most on the last count. He got into the habit of getting into wholly avoidable slug fests and slaying imaginary demons. Also proximity to corporate houses will not be appreciated. Ravi Shanker Prasad lost Telecom because he was seen as being soft on Reliance. Jayant Sinha had become a bit snooty and arrogant too early in his political innings. He also paid the price of speaking out of turn. He also lulled himself into believing that nothing will ever go wrong with him as he was amongst the chosen ones of and someone who had the PM’s blessings.
Don’t take Modi for granted; is the big message for those who think they are close to him.
It will take a while to fully appreciate how much –if at all–Arun Jaitley has lost out in this cabinet reshuffle. He still retains finance and in today’s world that remains the most important portfolio after the Prime Minister’s. So has he been divested of I&B because the Prime Minister wants someone to do a better job there or is it simply a case of Modi wanting Arun Jaitley to give his undivided attention to finance. It’s a difficult one and quite frankly one can only hazard a guess. My guess is that while Jaitley still remains a part of the inner circle with Amit Shah and enjoys the Prime Minister’s confidence, his influence, power and position on the high table has certainly lost some of its earlier sheen. By how many notches? Nobody knows!
The final message. Only one man seems to be enjoying the complete trust of Prime Minister as of now and he is perhaps the only one –apart from a couple of senior PMO officials–who knew and perhaps had a say in this exercise. Amit Shah. Fellow traveller from Gujarat and Narendra Modi’s Hanuman.