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The messages from Sunday's reshuffle

By Rajeev Sharma
Last updated on: December 31, 2020 17:45 IST
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Nirmala Sitharaman's elevation not only to full Cabinet minister but also pitchforking her to the elite Cabinet Committee on Security group with the defence portfolio is undoubtedly the biggest takeaway from Sunday's reshuffle, says Rajeev Sharma.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

IMAGE: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Photograph: REUTERS / Kham

First, let's have the big picture of the latest ministerial reshuffle, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's third such exercise and the first in 14 months.

The prime minister has struck many targets with a single arrow of the reshuffle of his council of ministers which has eventually turned out to be a BJP-specific exercise leaving out allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

This means that there is scope for yet another reshuffle-cum-expansion as he has kept five ministerial posts unfilled.

The current strength of the Union council of ministers is 76, including the PM, whereas the Constitution provides for a maximum of 81 ministerial berths.

The next such exercise will inevitably be NDA-specific with the focus on allies. But this may well happen only after assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh this year end, unless political exigencies dictate otherwise. Therefore, the allies will have to wait.

Modi has sent several messages to several people within the government and the party. Here is how.

Nirmala Sitharaman's elevation not only to full Cabinet minister but also pitchforking her to the elite CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) group with the defence portfolio is undoubtedly the biggest takeaway from Sunday's reshuffle.

Sushma Swaraj was the only woman in the CCS thus far, a powerful political pentagon comprising the ministers of finance, home, defence and external affairs and headed by the prime minister.

In a way, the development can be construed as a great leveler for the veteran Swaraj. Now Sitharaman, much junior in the BJP set-up not just to Swaraj, has been pitchforked into this powerful body, and is the second woman in the CCS, perhaps the first time ever in the history of independent India.

And the people at large cannot be unmindful of the fact that Sitharaman is the country's second woman defence minister after the towering Indira Gandhi.

By elevating Sitharaman, Modi has netted several balls by striking just one in the game of political billiards.

He has signalled a message of women empowerment even though none of the new inductees is a woman.

Second, she is from Tamil Nadu, an important state on which the hawkish eyes of Modi and his hand-picked BJP President Amit Shah are fixed.

The BJP is eyeing at least 10 Lok Sabha seats in the state with the help of allies in the next general election to make good the expected loss of seats from Hindi-speaking states and Gujarat where the BJP is already at a saturation point.

Third, Sitharaman has been declared the BJP's face for southern India, a profile which M Venkaiah Naidu had till his elevation as vice-president of India.

Thus, the Modi dispensation has declared Venkiah's political successor which shows her increased role and profile within the BJP.

It will be her test by fire because her native state Tamil Nadu is going through an intense political churning and another southern state Karnataka is due to have assembly polls by May next year.

It remains to be seen how she will handle the two pressure jobs, one administrative and another political, particularly when her performance in her erstwhile commerce portfolio wasn't exactly an eye-popping one.

Another big takeaway of the reshuffle is the elevation of another junior minister to full Cabinet status -- Piyush Goel.

He has been given the behemoth of the railway ministry which until last year boasted of being the only ministry to present its own budget.

The move can also be interpreted as a warning shot to the BJP's allies as the Janata Dal-United which had evinced interest in this ministry.

It only goes to show that the BJP, which unlike the previous two United Progressive Alliance governments has a clear majority on its own, can throw only crumbs to its allies.

There is yet another dark message for the BJP leaders and cadres.

The reshuffle shows Modi's penchant for the bureaucracy at the expense of career politicians.

Four out of the nine inductees are retired bureaucrats -- Hardeep Puri (Indian Foreign Service), Satyapal Singh (Indian Police Service) and R K Singh and Alphons Kannanthanam (India Administrative Service).

Of these, Puri and Alphons aren't even MPs. All of them joined the BJP just a few years ago after having the best of their respective administrative careers.

This move should off some chatter within the BJP political cadres. Of course, nothing will come of this. But then it's politics.

Today Modi's word is law just as L K Advani's was till a few years ago. Who knows till when Modi will enjoy such power which allow him to run a presidential form of government?

Rajeev Sharma, a strategic analyst and columnist, tweets @Kishkindha

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