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Why the axe fell on 3 senior ministers

By RASHME SEHGAL
July 09, 2021 06:49 IST
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To believe that the key job of his senior ministers is to ensure that his image be kept intact whatever be the outcome of his policies is to expect too much even of someone as ambitious as Narendra Modi, asserts Rashme Sehgal.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with the 43 ministers who took the oath of office at Rashtrapati Bhawan, July 7, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

Two qualities have defined Prime Minister Modi's seven years at the helm.

His concern about his international image and his incredible political resilience.

The latter was at full display when 43 new ministers were sworn in on Wednesday evening.

The television media informed viewers about how this younger generation of ministers consisted of seven Phds, three MBAs, 13 lawyers, six doctors, five engineers and seven civil servants.

Sixty-eight ministers in all, we were informed, had graduate degrees.

Modi is obviously hoping the foreign media will pick up these snazzy details as has been lapped up by the Indian press.

And to show he meant business, he sacked Minister of Law and Justice, Electronics and Information Technology and Communication Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Another major casualty (amongst several others) has been the axing of Minister of Environment and Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar.

Javadekar's handling of the environment ministry has been disastrous to say the least, but he was not shown the door because of his consistent and underhand attempt to dilute the foundational principles on which India's environmental protection hinges.

Rather, he was shown the way out because the prime minister believes he did little to save Modi from the mauling he received from the foreign media and social media over his handling of the pandemic.

IMAGE: Prakash Javadekar addresses a press conference. Photograph: ANI Photo

Modi is unused to such public roasting especially on a platform like Twitter which he and members of his party used to great success in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and then during his years in governance.

Modi prefers to use this American social media platform as his primary public outreach tool having announced a slew of his policies on this platform during the last seven years.

Given the impact Twitter has on public conversation, Modi found it galling to face this growing tide of criticism made worse by a barrage of condemnation on digital news outlets.

The prime minister reacted as he always does when faced with a growing tide of criticism. He was determined to impose greater censorship on these media outlets.

Ravi Shankar Prasad was given the unenviable task of having to come up with a new set of rules to control and censor social media platforms and digital news outlets.

These new Information Technology Rules were kicked off in February.

As per these guidelines, Twitter was for a start asked to take down critical content against the government posted by thousands of agitating farmers.

The social network refused to take them off, but then agreed to do so when the government threatened to arrest their local employees.

This was followed by an even more bitter confrontation when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders displayed a 'toolkit' on Twitter that they claimed was prepared by the Congress and anti-national.

Twitter flagged the BJP tweet on the toolkit as being 'manipulated media'.

IMAGE: Kindly note that this image has only been posted for representational purposes. Photograph: Reuters

Twitter's unwillingness to comply saw the government order the Delhi police to raid Twitter's office on May 24 which the latter claimed were intimidatory tactics.

Relations between the BJP government and Twitter continued to spiral downward to the extent that in Uttar Pradesh, authorities went to the extent of filing an FIR against a man for tweeting that his dying grandfather desperately needed oxygen.

The man was accused of 'circulating a rumour' at a time when the authorities claimed oxygen was freely available in the state.

The UP government took matters a step further when its police wanted to question the Indian head of Twitter for allowing an elderly Muslim man's hate crime allegations to be published on its platforms.

Finally, matters came to a head when Twitter published an incorrect map of India. The government slapped a case against Twitter on July 5.

Media experts believe that the faceoff has only served to generate worse publicity for the Modi sarkar.

Ravi Shankar Prasad believed he was following the PMO directives in accelerating this confrontation.

Obviously, he was unable to understand that while Modi wanted to rein in the social media platform, he did not want his minister to adopt such a confrontational approach given that he and his government need both Twitter and Facebook.

And for Prasad to have held a press conference against the social media companies at the BJP headquarters was the final straw in his poor handling of this sensitive issue and one of the key reasons for his exit.

IMAGE: Ravi Shankar Prasad at a press conference. Photograph: ANI Photo

Prakash Javadekar has been the chief spokesperson of the party and yet despite being Modi's point man in fast tracking environmental clearances in the mnvironment Ministry, he too has been shown the door.

Javadekar knew only too well that this indiscriminate green signalling of clearances has been at the cost of our environment.

India stood 177 out of 180 countries on the Environmental Performance Index of 2018. In 2016, India was ranked 141 on the same index.

India also had the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of environmental conflicts in the world and these have only got worse with the Environmental Justice Atlas recording 271 cases in India on 2017.

The rapid deletion of forests, a severe shortage of drinking water and rising pollution levels across all our cities did not stop the United Nations Environment Programme from giving Modi the 'Champions of the Earth' award in 2018. This is the UN's highest environmental honour.

Was Modi deserving of this award given his track record on the environmental front and given that Javadekar had, under Modi's directions, diluted all our environmental laws?

One year later while speaking at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York Modi quoted from Gandhi to say, 'The earth provided enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed.'

The problem is that while Modi wants adulation for being an environmental crusader from world leaders, he forgets he is not living in a glass house.

Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg gave a sharp riposte to Modi when he was in New York by stating 'Dear Mr Modi, you need to take action now against the climate crisis, not just talking about it because if you keep going on like this, doing business as usual, and bragging about the little victories, you are going to fail.'

'And if you fail, you are going to be seen as one of the worst villains in human history in the future. And you don't want that.'

Javadekar has ensured fast track clearances for several of the Modi government's pet projects including the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project which will see large scale cutting of mangrove trees that alone act as a buffer against cyclones.

The recent clearances given to the ambitious Ken-Betwa river linking project will result in the submergence of the beautiful Panna tiger reserve in the heart of Madhya Pradesh.

Again, this project has been cleared without any public consultations.

The expansion of the Char Dham road project has been done at the cost of the destruction of precious forests and of destroying the fragile eco-system of the Himalayas with the issue presently having been taken to the Supreme Court.

The list of such underhand stratagems being employed are endless.

It was the environment ministry's job to ensure that while Modi's image abroad was one of a green champion, within the country he continued to facilitate the unhindered plundering of our already fraught resources.

Javadekar tried to do a balancing act during the last seven years but the deadly Corona second wave which had thousands of corpses being thrown into the Ganga and saw endless lines of corpses waiting to be burnt in our overburdened crematoriums has blown a fuse on Modi's image of being a caring patriarch.

The prime minister did not forgive Javadekar for not having played a proactive role in protecting his image.

The closest example, party sources point to is how the new Minister of Urban Development Hardeep Singh Puri has been rewarded with the ministry of petroleum.

Puri had repeatedly waxed eloquent against television anchors when protecting Modi's Central Vista project.

IMAGE: Dr Harsh Vardhan pays homage to the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Photograph: ANI Photo

Neither of these senior ministers as also Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had the courage to warn Modi that as coronavirus cases began to ebb in December-January 2021, he should refrain from going to town about this being a major success story.

As a result, Modi crowed about India's success in curbing the coronavirus when he spoke at the World Economic Forum in January.

The prime minister spoke about how India 'has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively'.

Again, neither of this trio thought it right to nudge him not to ensure thousands gathered to watch cricket matches at the Narendra Modi stadium in Gujarat in early 2020.

This self-laudatory mood continued with millions being encouraged to attend the Kumbh Mela which turned out to be a super spreader event.

To peg the blame on these ministers as also to blame social media for carrying the critiques and criticism of millions of affected Indians is unfair.

Modi has a penchant for introducing policies without having held any prior consultation with the stakeholders.

To silence criticism or to believe that the key job of his senior ministers is to ensure that his image be kept intact whatever be the outcome of his policies or however much suffering the people in the country be inflicted upon is to expect too much even of someone as ambitious as Narendra Modi.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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