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Heads Rolled, But Buck Stopped

July 08, 2021 17:48 IST
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The BJP ignored the principle of the Cabinet's joint responsibility and the adage of the buck stopping at the top, observes Amulya Ganguli.

IMAGE: Dr Harsh Vardhan was asked to resign as India's health minister. Photograph: PTI Photo

It is possible that Harsh Vardhan's goose was cooked by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's observation that a sense of complacency towards the end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the disastrous second wave.

In sacking the former health minister while reshuffling the Cabinet, the prime minister can be said to have acknowledged Vardhan's culpability.

What is noteworthy, however, is that belated though the dismissal is, this is the first time in Narendra Damodardas Modi's career that someone in his entourage has been blamed for any lapse.

Otherwise, normally, the pretence is that all is well and no one has to carry the can.

Whether it is the number of deaths in the Gujarat riots or the dearth of oxygen in the rest of the country during a pandemic, the government is supposedly always in the clear and ready for electoral success.

It has to be acknowledged that Bhagwat has broken the spell.

IMAGE: Ravi Shankar Prasad was asked to resign as India's law and IT minister. Photograph: PTI Photo

But, curiously, it is not only Vardhan who has had to pay the price.

Another victim of this new atmosphere of accountability is Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Although it is not yet clear why he has had to go, but the departure cannot be unrelated to his spat with Twitter.

Prasad did not seem to have realised that this was not the time when to wear his uber-nationalism on his sleeve and take on the new East India Company in the garb of the Big Tech giants in the social media.

India at present is not only in a strategic partnership with the US to fob off the Chinese who may be in occupation of some of our territory, but India is also beholden to the Joe Biden administration on the vaccine front.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar's recent visit to the US was for this reason.

But the man from Patna apparently did not see the scene in this light.

Did he make a mistake or was he on the right track?

The answer will be known from the way the new Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishanav handles the situation.

But what is clear is that the government has become more sensitive to foreign opinion than before.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with India's new Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya. Photograph: PTI Photo

It is unlikely that the external affair minister will now airily dismiss the charges of India being 'partly free' or is an 'electoral autocracy' as the angst-ridden outpourings of 'self-appointed custodians' of public morality.

Paying greater heed to criticism is not the only change in the context of the reshuffle.

What is also noticeable is the emphasis which is now being placed on including technocrats and bureaucrats in the new ministry.

Yet, not long ago, the prime minister derided those educated in Harvard, claiming that 'hard work' mattered more, and also wondered why IAS officials should be in charge of business enterprises.

In the process, he scoffed at the prevalence of the 'babu culture'.

Is there now a realisation that 'experts' are needed to extricate the country from the difficulties in the health and economic sectors ?

Even as the reshuffle points to new directions in the matter of noting adverse views and listening to professionals, there is change in the BJP's social profile as well.

IMAGE: Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw assumes office at Rail Bhawan, July 8, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

Considering the number of OBCs, SCs and STs that have been inducted in the ministry, it would appear that the BJP is transiting from being a Brahmin-bania party of the the Vajpayee-Advani period to an organisation of the subalterns.

This particular change has obviously been undertaken with an eye on the UP elections where the BJP's main opponent will be the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party.

But for all the emphasis on the intermediate castes, Dalits and Adivasis, the absence of Muslims is noticeable in the latest exercise which will probably be the last major one before the next general election.

Even as the BJP has taken to heart Bhagwat's plain speaking on the missteps on the pandemic, it has ignored his plea on the generic unity of the Hindus and Muslims based on a shared DNA.

What the party can also be said to have ignored is the principle of the Cabinet's joint responsibility and the adage of the buck stopping at the top.

To escape any imputations on these scores, the new Cabinet will have to be visibly successful.

Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs.

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