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Devi Shetty to be health minister?

May 24, 2021 14:14 IST

Among the other names tipped to make it to the Cabinet are Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sarbananda Sonowal, Baijayant Panda.

IMAGE: Dr Devi Shetty. Photograph: ANI Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah held a three hour-long strategy meeting on Sunday, May 23, with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sar-karyawah Dattatreya Hosabale and Sunil Bansal, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Uttar Pradesh unit, to discuss the impact of the Covid crisis on the government and BJP's image and its fallout on state elections due next year, including in Uttar Pradesh, sources say.

Also on the agenda was a possible reshuffle of the Union council of ministers in July, depending on whether the coronavirus second wave abates by then.

Modi is expected to sack a few ministers and bring in new faces to showcase his team for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

The focus of the reshuffle is to send a clear message that health infrastructure will be doubled, and show that the prime minister is mindful of the sharp criticism over the mishandling of the second wave.

With many experts warning of a possible third wave of coronavirus before November, the Modi government does not want the impression to gain ground that it has once again taken its eyes off the ball to focus on state elections in UP and Punjab due in March 2022.

If things once again go downhill like it did this year, the leadership is aware of its negative fallout on the Gujarat assembly election due by the end of 2022.

Among the ministries that will see a change is health, say sources. Healthcare professionals with whom Modi has been interacting have identified a few faces from the medical side, and speculation is that Dr Devi Shetty, founder of Narayana Health, will be the new Union health minister.

A few days ago, Dr Shetty was appointed by Karnataka, a state ruled by the BJP, as head of its task force to prepare for the Covid third wave.

During his interactions the with pharmaceutical companies to speed up the supply of Covid-related medicines, Modi came across bottlenecks in the supply chain that he wants rectified. The priority for Modi is not only to bring the economy back on rails, but also the address the pathetic health conditions in rural areas and to provide the best possible medical assistance to the poor.

Apart from Dr Shetty, Modi is keen to bring in eight to ten new faces. Among the names mentioned are former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, former Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, former Bihar deputy CM Sushil Modi, and member of Parliament from Odisha Baijayant Panda.

Experienced BJP hands tipped to make it to the government are Bhupender Yadav, Meenakshi Lekhi and G V L Narasimha Rao.

Modi, who enters his eighth year in office on May 26, is unlikely to disturb the finance, home, defence and external affairs portfolios, according to a highly placed political source.

While Modi depends on Home Minister Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has proved his mettle during the pandemic with smooth imports of oxygen and organising the IAF and Indian Navy to ferry containers from far-off countries in record time.

As did External Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar who showed zeal in negotiating intellectual property issues with the US and European Union over material to be imported to boost the manufacture of Covishield and Covaxin in India.

Modi also admires the loyalty shown by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in dealing with the states and the Reserve Bank of India during the Covid second wave.

Currently, six Cabinet ministers hold two and more portfolios, among them being Prakash Javadekar, Piyush Goyal and Hardeep Singh Puri, who are expected to offload the extra ones.

The information and broadcasting portfolio is certain to be reassigned to a senior minister, say sources. Has incumbent Javadekar proved his worth? The answer is mixed, what with the government facing an incessant onslaught of criticism on social media over the second Covid wave and Twitter's blacklisting of BJP leaders over the 'toolkit' episode.

Similar is the case with the health ministry. Much was expected from Dr Harsh Vardhan, a medical doctor himself, but the massive death toll in the second wave has derailed Dr Vardhan's leadership of the health ministry.

While Modi is being cornered by the Opposition from multiple sides, he has maintained a stoic silence. But his aides reveal in private conversations that the prime minister plans to turn the criticism in his favour by weeding out non-performers in his team.

The law allows him 79 members in the council of ministers and currently he has 53, which leaves him enough room to bring in new talent and to try out various permutations and combinations ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 2024.

Of course, it all depends on the second Covid wave being contained by July.