Print this article

Reshuffle caught the media napping!

September 04, 2017 13:19 IST

'Till the time the MSM and Modi don't trust one another, expect more Nirmala Sitharamans springing out from nowhere,' says Sudhir Bisht.

IMAGE: Nirmala Sitharaman signs the register after taking the oath as a Cabinet minister at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on September 3, 2017.
Sitharaman is India's second woman defence minister after Indira Gandhi. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTI Photo

By the time this column goes live, a lot would have been written about the changes in the Modi ministry.

The analysts would have analysed the 'whys' behind every change that Modi brought about in the latest ministerial reshuffle.


Why did the prime minister cock a snook at the Janata Dal-United and Shiv Sena by not including them in what appears to the last round ministerial reshuffle?

Why did this person get the PM';s nod? How unlucky was that person to have missed out?

How the elevation of one man or woman is meant to rein in the rise of another man or woman.

The eminent men and women smiling out of our TV sets and their mugshots peeping out of print columns would have sorted out all of it by now.

I want to discuss something else.

How is it that the mainstream media (MSM), with a fleet of OB vans and an army of field reporters and scores of seasoned analysts and several sources of intelligence, was unable to come within striking distance of any kind of true picture that unveiled this Sunday?

It's like the MSM predicted an India win over the Sri Lanka cricket team, but what we saw was a football match at the Premadasa stadium!

Let me start all over again.

What does a group comprising two retired Indian Administrative Service officers, one retired officer from the Indian Foreign Service, and one retired officer from the Indian Police Service, have in common with five career politicians?

Well, they all took the oath of office and secrecy at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday morning as new ministers.

The commonality doesn't end here. Out of these nine first-time ministers, at least five of them were those whose names never cropped up in any of the guessing games played by the media pundits.

No television channel, nor any print or Web media, even made a passing reference to the possibility of Hardeep Singh Puri, Alphons Kannanthanam, Virendra Kumar, Shiv Pratap Shukla, Ashwani Kumar Choubey and Anant Kumar Heggde becoming ministers.

On the contrary, most media experts spoke about Bhupender Yadav, Pravesh Verma, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Mahesh Girri, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Shobha Karandlaje getting a recommendation from Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit A Shah and an approval from Prime Minister Narendra D Modi to become first-time ministers.

There was widespread speculation in the media about a possible successor to Arun Jaitley, who was keen to relinquish the defence ministry of which he held additional charge. The names like Nitin Gadkari and Suresh Prabhu were mentioned by some media-persons as the next defence minister.

On the day of the reckoning, the media houses were gasping for breath when they saw four former bureaucrats getting into the ministry. But the political analysts, especially those who love to appear on television every day to pass a judgment here and reveal a scoop there, were not giving up easily.

What if they were not able to predict the list of new ministers, they must have said to one another. They could still tell us which one of them will get a position that is more coveted than the rest.

When Dharmendra Pradhan's name was announced as the first minister to take the oath of office and secrecy, a silver-haired political commentator said, 'The fact that Dharmendra Pradhan is the first person to take oath is not without significance. This is a pointer to the fact that he could be up for a bigger assignment.'

As has become the norm, the prime minister, the BJP president and the top three ministers of the NDA government were able to keep the entire media guessing about the name of the new ministers till the last minute.

The media got wind of the new names only at the time when Modi, unarguably the strongest prime minister ever in the last 20 years, wanted the media to know about it.

And as was expected, the biggest news of the day was announced when the PM's plane took off for China.

I was hearing the arguments on the news television channels on how thin the Modi Sarkar was on talent that it could not identify a member from the BJP to head the defence ministry.

The anchors loyal to the government were waxing eloquent about how highly rated Jaitley was and how much faith the PM reposes in his go-to-man.

The channels that have steadfastly remained loyal to a party whose Lok Sabha members can be packed into a medium-size bus, were nudging panellists to say how bankrupt the BJP was in terms of leadership talent, that it couldn't find a single person to become a full-time defence minister.

The former chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, even tweeted: 'Looking at the faces inducted there's no option but for PM to keep External Affairs & move @SushmaSwaraj to defense. #cabinetreshuffle.'

A television anchor took the bait and the debate swerved towards decorum issues, asking if the Opposition party had any right to suggest ministerial changes in the ruling party.

One anchor even conceded, voice bordering on melancholy, 'Okay, no doubt that Mr Jaitley is very capable, but does India not deserve a full-time defence minister at a time when our border situation is not so peaceful?'

I thought that India always deserved a full-time defence minister even if our border situation was perfectly peaceful.

And I still believe that one man can take up two full-time jobs. It is just a matter of managerial capacity and leadership acumen.

As a friend from the MoD suggested, since some matters of defence are stuck at the finance ministry, Jaitley being the defence as well as finance minister wasn't bad at all.

It was at this point that the television cameras zoomed in on the PM who was seen getting out of his car and taking brisk steps up the Air India One ladder. As he waved, the cameras went back to the studios.

It was at this moment that the anchors announced, all of them together, that the big news that only their channel was breaking, was Nirmala Sitharaman's elevation as defence minister.

The news struck the anchors and viewers alike. They all appeared to have touched a live high-tension wire that left them stunned.

The ruling party friendly channels quickly regained their composure and started congratulating the PM on giving India the first-ever woman defence minister.

They lauded Sitharaman's administrative acumen and recalled how well she had served India's interests at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

All of a sudden Nirmala Sitharaman had become a star performer of the Modi government.

Forget the fact that a few days ago it was being suggested by the media that she could be dropped and drafted into party work.

From being dropped for party work to be elevated as defence minister is like getting a double promotion when there was talk of your flunking the exam!

Why is it that Narendra Modi likes to keep the media guessing and often makes it look more than sheepish when it comes to announcements like this? Does he revel in it?

The answer is, of course, NO.

The prime minister likes to make all the decisions by himself even after he has consulted his party president who is more like a chief operating officer and his sounding board.

It is my analysis that Modi, while allowing a near free hand to Shah on party affairs, treats Shah on par, or even a notch below his trusted ministerial colleague Arun Jaitley on matters of running the government.

Many of the newly inducted ministers, career politicians as well as retired bureaucrats, have been recommended by Shah and Jaitley.

But once the prime minister received their recommendations, he reveals the final decisions only to the most trusted men in his office.

Modi may not like surprising the media, but he doesn't seem to give it much importance.

Will the mainstream media ever get Modi to open up before it? My feeling is, not in the near future.

Modi takes some criticism in his stride, but he has been impaled by the MSM in the past so antagonistically that he likes to keep it at arm's length.

Modi also gets impatient with flatterers and praise warriors. Perhaps when the media refrains from being his critic 24x7, or stops being his praise singer, the prime minister will warm up to traditional media.

The media, however, has no particular reason to seek favours from the prime minister just to be able to read his mind.

But till the time the MSM and Modi don't trust one another, expect more Nirmala Sitharamans springing out from nowhere.

Here's wishing the new defence minister all the very best in her new assignment.

She is a lady of great dignity, a woman of substance and an achiever in her own right.

Her inclusion in the Cabinet Committee on Security will add more steel to it.

Sudhir Bisht, author and columnist, tweets @sudhir_bisht.

Sudhir Bisht