After many false alarms and long-studied wait by aspirants, sources in the government say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to rejig his council of ministers and is looking at two windows of opportunity. One could open up as early as July 7 and the other after the Monsoon Session of Parliament or PM Modi’s Independence Day address to the nation.
A senior source in the government said a cabinet reshuffle is the prime minister’s prerogative as he has to consider various factors, like the pandemic and the forthcoming session of the Parliament, which needs ministers well settled with their portfolios.
On June 30, PM Modi addressed his council of ministers and asked them to prepare facts and figures to counter charges made by the Opposition. “The comment could be an indication that the PM may go for a rejig after the session,” the source said.
Sources say that the cabinet reshuffle, as and when it takes place, is expected to be not just an exercise to shape up administrative governance for the remaining three years of PM Modi’s tenure but also to send out a political signal by correcting regional representation with an eye on coming polls. “It would be a mid-term course correction by the PM,” a minister told India Today.
To begin with, the prime minister can have an 81 member council, while currently there are 53 ministers in PM Modi’s cabinet. Sources say that PM Modi could fill up some of the 28 posts vacant to improve the government’s administrative and political footprint.
Sources said that the prime minister could effect a little over 20 changes in his council. “The changes may include new inductions, leaders being sent from government to the party, and vice-versa and redistribution of portfolios,” a leader told India Today.
LONG WAIT CASES
The list of those who have been waiting and could be inducted includes Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sarbananda Sonowal. While Scindia quit the Congress and joined the BJP on March 10 last year, Sonowal recently made way for Hemanta Biswa Sarma as the Assam chief minister. Both are tipped to get cabinet berths as Scindhia was a junior minister in the UPA government and Sonowal was a cabinet minister in the NDA government till 2016.
Performance is expected to be one of the benchmarks when PM Modi expands his cabinet. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan faced the Opposition’s criticism for failing to preempt the ferocity of the second wave of Covid-19 and a slowdown in vaccination drive. The death and distress caused during the second wave pushed PM Modi to step in and take charge of the battle against the pandemic. He personally supervised the movement and procurement of medical hardware and liquid medical oxygen along with resetting the vaccination drive deadlines.
The government had to launch a major damage control exercise to reduce the negative perception that had gained ground following the second wave.
However, a BJP leader told India Today that the decision on the health ministry would require delicate balancing. “Changing the health minister prior to the Parliament session would be termed as an admission of guilt by the Opposition, which is expected to target the PM for the second wave of distress,” the leader said.
However, a counter-theory is that a change in the key ministry in battle against Covid-19 may blunt the Opposition’s charge.
If PM Modi goes in for a change in the health ministry, the BJP would have to bring a Delhi MP in the council as a replacement for Dr Harsh Vardhan. The names of Delhi MPs Parvesh Verma and Meenakshi Lekhi are doing the rounds as probables for the post.
Sources say there are three cabinet ministers who are under the lens due to performance issues.
PM Modi is expected to take a decisive step to introduce greater efficiency by reducing the burden on several ministers who hold multiple portfolios. These are portfolios that don’t fit in the super-ministry category which PM Modi has opted for since 2014.
Hardeep Singh Puri has Ministery of State (independent charge) in Housing and Urban Affairs and Ministry of Civil Aviation, while he is also a junior minister in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Narendra Singh Tomar is the Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj along with the Ministry of Food Processing, which fell vacant after Shiromani Akali Dal MP Harasimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the cabinet over the three farm laws.
Piyush Goyal holds Ministry of Railways and Ministry of Commerce and Industry along with Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, which he has been managing following the death of LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan.
Ravi Shankar Prasad has Ministry of Communication, Law Ministry and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Prakash Javadekar has held the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises since November 2019.
LIKELY NEW FACES AND NEW OPENINGS
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this exercise has to factor in the polls in five states next year which could impact the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and honour alliance partners.
Sources say that PM Modi may bring in one more junior minister to the Finance Ministry, which has its task cut out due to the enormous strain the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns have created.
Among the new faces, the name of Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha Ashwini Vaishnaw is under discussion. Vaishnaw, as an ex IAS officer of 1994 batch, had served a term in late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office as private secretary.
Sources say the other probable from Odisha is party vice-president Baijayant Panda. A senior leader said Panda could find a berth as a junior minister in the External Affairs Ministry.
The other newcomer to the council could be Dr Pritam Gopinath Rao Munde, second term BJP MP from Beed constituency in Maharashtra. She is the daughter of BJP’s Maharastra strongman, late Gopinath Munde. The other Maharashtra leader who could find a place on the council is strongman Narayan Rane, sources say.
Though the name of BJP Rajya Sabha Member Bhupendra Yadav, party in-charge of Bihar and Gujarat, is doing the rounds, some leaders say it is possible that PM Modi may not burden one of his key troubleshooters.
Sources say that the BJP president JP Nadda expects induction into the council from crucial states like Uttarakhand, Haryana and Karnataka. BJP leaders or defectors who fought a hard battle against Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in West Bengal may also find a place in the cabinet.
After a meeting between Nadda and Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi, there are speculations that the three-term MP may find a place on the council.
There is speculation that the BJP may send one minister from UP back to the state politics to make way for UP BJP president Swatantra Dev Singh back to the council. However, sources in the UP BJP say this would mean getting a new party president barely months before the state polls.
Since Chirag Paswan took his party out of the NDA fold ahead of 2020 Bihar polls, the cabinet berth that fell vacant after the death of his father Ram Vilas Paswan is likely to go to his uncle Pashupati Paras. The uncle led a coup against Chirag and had the breakaway faction recognised by the Lok Sabha Speaker as the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) last month. Paras, however, is not likely to get the crucial Food and Consumers Affairs portfolio held by late Ram Vilas Paswan.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met PM Modi in the third week of June. Sources say that the crucial Bihar ally, who ended his long rivalry with PM Modi, is likely to get two berths in the council of ministers against one that was offered in 2019, leading to Nitish Kumar keeping JD(U) out of the council.
The names of two JD(U) leaders — Munger MP Rajiv Ranjan (Lallan) Singh and senior JD(U) Rajya Sabha member RCP Singh are doing the rounds as Nitish Kumar’s pick for the council.
However, there is no clarity on whether the BJP’s Bihar leader and former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, who shifted to Delhi after Bihar polls, would get a berth.
Facing serious damage to its caste chemistry that led to successful outings in Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, PM Modi would like to correct the course.
Sources say that OBC, MBC and Dalit segments need to be given a signal. Prominent OBC player Apna Dal’s Anupriya Patel (Mirzapur), who has been sidelined since 2019, is likely to get a place in the council.
BJP sources say that there is also a possibility of a leader representing the dominant Brahmin and Dalit communities could find a place in the cabinet.