A cynical reshuffle

Praful Bidwai
Friday, November 14, 2014

Those who expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deliver on his promise of cleaning up Indian politics of money power and crime, discarding short-term caste-and-community calculations, and placing merit above personal loyalty, would be sorely disappointed at his cabinet reshuffle, with 21 new ministers. Its composition reflects a great paucity of talent in the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, and doesn’t augur well for governance.

For starters, 92 percent of the members of the expanded council of ministers are crorepatis, with average assets of (Indian)Rs14 crore, or double those of United Progressive Alliance ministers. Almost one-third of them have criminal charges pending against them; 17 percent have serious charges, including rape, attempt to murder, and rioting.

Eight of the 21 newly inducted ministers also face criminal charges. The list is topped by Minister of State for Human Resource Development (of all portfolios!) Ramshankar Katheria, indicted in 21 cases, including attempt to murder, provoking communal disharmony, forgery and intimidation. He’s followed by Hansraj Ahir, with 11 cases, including assault and criminal intimidation, and yet others, including Giriraj Singh, connected with the Ranvir Sena, a Bhumihar militia in Bihar responsible for several Dalit massacres.

The cruellest irony here is the media-planted story that Ahir was rewarded by Modi for being a ‘whistle-blower’ in the coal scam – although he has an unflattering reputation and was reportedly acting for and fed information by one of Maharashtra’s most predatory business groups, with interests in coal and power generation. He’s also close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and represents the constituency from where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat comes.

The new cabinet accommodates certain hitherto-excluded caste and regional interests – from Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, etc. Even so, the states that defied the Modi wave, like Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, remain under-represented. So does the south generally, barring Karnataka.

Modi has rewarded the Jats, as the inclusion of Birender Singh (Haryana) and Sanwar Lal Jat (Rajasthan) suggests. This is partly meant to assuage the Jat sentiment in Haryana, where a non-Jat has been made chief minister. Even more significant is the induction of three new ministers from different castes in Bihar, where elections are due next year: Rajiv Pratap Rudy (a Thakur), Giriraj Singh (a Bhumihar) and Ram Kirpal Yadav (meant as a counter to Laloo Prasad).

The BJP, which confronts a formidable alliance in Bihar between the Janata Dal (United), Laloo’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress, is preparing the ground by fomenting anti-Muslim violence, with 170 communal incidents since June 2013.

More visible than these caste calculations is the RSS stamp in the choice of Manohar Parrikar, and at least five more RSS loyalists. Much has been made of the merit and administrative competence of Parrikar and former Shiv Sainik Suresh Prabhu, who hold the defence and railways portfolios. Parrikar’s none-too-distinguished experience is limited to tiny Goa, where he’s known for his impatient, abrasive style. But he’s a Modi loyalist. Besides, Goa is where Modi got a reprieve from BJP leaders from being sacked after the Gujarat carnage in 2002, and where he was anointed the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013.

Parrikar never managed to combat corruption or break the nexus between Goa’s politics and the iron-ore mafia. He temporarily shut down iron-ore mining, plunging the economy into a grave crisis. The closure became prolonged, but he lost numerous opportunities to turn the economy around. Why he’s considered fit to handle a complex portfolio like defence remains a mystery.

As for Prabhu, he cleared a number of ecologically unsound projects as environment minister. But he has been cultivating Modi and was named his sherpa for the G-20 summit.

Even more questionable is JP Nadda’s appointment as the health minister in place of Harsh Vardhan. The two differed over the transfer of AIIMS Central Vigilance Officer Sanjeev Chaturvedi who had demanded a CBI inquiry into various scams. Nadda prevailed and the CVO was transferred. The Aam Aadmi Party is right to protest against Nadda’s appointment which, it says, will lead to more corruption in AIIMS and higher costs for patients.

The induction of YS Chowdary into the science and technology ministry further discredits the government. Chowdary, with declared assets of Rs190 crore, is a major loan defaulter and owes Rs317 crore to the Central Bank of India. Similarly, Giriraj Singh stands accused of hugely undervaluing his wealth. He reported a theft of Rs50,000 from his Patna home, but the police recovered Rs1.25 crore in cash! He’s also charged with violating the election law.

Minister of State Nihalchand Meghwal, who faces a rape charge in Rajasthan, and has been declared ‘missing’ by the state police despite numerous public appearances, was not dropped from the ministry – only shifted from the chemicals to the panchayati raj portfolio.

The new council of ministers inspires no hope – all the more because Modi’s ultra-authoritarian style is likely to prevent even the more competent ministers from working with the functional autonomy they need. Modi has been meeting secretaries directly and disrupting the chain of command under which they normally report to their respective ministers.

All decisions, including middle-level appointments of officials, are concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. The diktat that no personal staff serving under UPA ministers can be employed under NDA ministers is polarising the bureaucracy along party lines.

What of Maharashtra, India’s second largest state, where the BJP won a motion of confidence in a controversial voice-vote despite lacking a majority? It could have won a proper division-based vote with the Nationalist Congress’s support, but didn’t want to be seen associating with that highly tainted, duplicitous party, with which it however colludes clandestinely.

The Shiv Sena is caught in a terrible bind after botching up its seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP. It’s hard to say how the Sena-BJP standoff will end. But it’s clear that the BJP is playing a deeply divisive game under Chief Minister and RSS loyalist Devendra Fadnavis, whose ascent represents retrogression. He is the first Brahmin to head Maharashtra after the Sena’s Manohar Joshi, himself ‘remote-controlled’ by former supremo Bal Thackeray.

Fadnavis will find it extremely difficult to clean Maharashtra’s Augean Stables, and its countless scams, ranging from irrigation to highways, and housing to sugar cooperatives.

His suave style and clean reputation notwithstanding, Fadnavis is implicated in numerous ways with the Sancheti group of Nagpur. He used the multi-crore irrigation scam to the hilt against the Congress-NCP government in, but didn’t mention the Sancheti link in his deposition before the committee that investigated it. He’s likely to face questions on this omission and on the Adarsh society scam, in which the Sanchetis are named too. He will find it difficult to handle this.

Fadnavis has indulged in double-speak on the creation of a separate state of Vidarbha, with Nagpur as its capital. He has demanded this vociferously for years, which is one reason why Vidarbha’s votaries backed him strongly. But the BJP, in particular Modi, opposed the demand in the election campaign. Sooner or later, this contradiction could catch up with the BJP and create serious problems for it. Its natural instinct will be to turn yet more cynical.

The writer, a former newspaper editor,is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: [email protected]