The formation of the Union Cabinet, without any doubt, has sent out a clear message that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Lal Krishna Advani era was finally over in the Bharatiya Janata Party, and barring a few exceptions, the new ministers were all Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chosen ones. It can be argued that Rajnath Singh and Ravi Shankar Prasad were an integral part of the earlier BJP dispensations, but their inclusion was evidently facilitated to bring in prominent faces from both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two most politically pivotal states in virtually every election since Independence.
Both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were the connecting links between the earlier and the present BJP, and their opting out has closed one very significant chapter in the organisation’s history, while opening a new one. Sushma was the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha during the UPA’s second term, while Jaitley occupied the same position in the Rajya Sabha. Both functioned under the overall leadership of Advani, and if the Westminster model was to have been followed, both would have been contenders for the Prime Ministership in 2014.
This did not materialise since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh decided to project Modi as the spearhead of the BJP campaign, a gamble that not only succeeded, but brought the saffron brigade to power with unimaginable numbers. It was a prevailing screenplay of triumph scripted by Modi himself and Rajnath Singh as the BJP president aligned with him when Advani was being overlooked for the top position prior to the polls in 2014.
Therefore, after Modi was elected as the Prime Minister, he rewarded Rajnath with the all-important Home Ministry, as he this time has accorded similar recognition to the current party chief, Amit Shah. Sushma, Jaitley, Ananth Kumar, Ravi Shankar Prasad and a host of others who enjoyed proximity to Advani, were an integral part of the 2014 Cabinet. They were well-versed with Central politics and Modi, who was himself a newcomer on the national scene, required their services to sustain his government and consolidate his own position.
This time around, it was Modi all the way and his selection of ministers is purely based on his own appraisal. Having reached the pinnacle of his career, the Prime Minister has included S. Jaishankar, a career diplomat and foreign policy expert as his External Affairs Minister. It is a move similar to the one made by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, when he had inducted Dr Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister.
There are many expectations from Jaishankar, who has an excellent rapport with the Prime Minister and possibly could fine tune the foreign policy to deal with both the United States and China in the coming years. Other than that, his expertise may mean that foreign policy initiatives would return to the Ministry of External Affairs, instead of being controlled by the Prime Minister’s secretariat which has been so since the Manmohan Singh period.
Amit Shah’s inclusion was a certainty, but most political commentators expected him to be given the Finance portfolio, with Jaitley taking a voluntary retirement from any future position in the government on account of his poor health. However, those who have been conversant with the manner in which the Sangh, in the late 1990s, had used Gujarat as its laboratory for experimenting its brand of politics, can attest to the importance which was attached to the Home portfolio. The late Haren Pandeya, a key BJP leader, was the Home Minister to Keshubhai Patel and subsequently Gordhan Zodafia and Amit Shah served in the same position with Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Thus with Modi in absolute control, Amit Shah would be dealing with contentious issues that have been a part of the BJP and the Sangh’s agenda. These include reviewing the stand on Article 370, Uniform Civil Code, the National Register of Citizens, while also assessing the political situation in states where governments were subsisting on wafer-thin majority. Shah would also be overseeing the solution to the Ram Mandir issue, besides strengthening the Prime Minister’s hands, by keeping him posted on matters relating to national security.
During Indira Gandhi’s tenure the Home Ministry was largely handled by leaders who had been Chief Ministers of their respective states. This practice was continued by Rao, but disrupted first by Vajpayee, and then by Manmohan Singh during his initial years; the logic being that the Home Minister should have the background and experience of knowing how states function. Realising his error, Manmohan had subsequently appointed Sushil Kumar Shinde after Shivraj Patil and P. Chidambaram held the portfolio. In his first tenure, Modi opted for Rajnath Singh and thereafter, since he has thoroughly acquainted himself with how systems operate, he has hand-picked his most trustworthy lieutenant for the post.
Modi certainly will miss the services of his other staunchly dependable friend, Arun Jaitley, who always assisted him in navigating through the political quagmire of Lutyens’ Delhi. Jaitley was his key-man and advised him on crucial political matters. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman may not be in the same political league, but is viewed as a person close to Jaitley. It is possible that she may also be appointed as the BJP’s leader in the Rajya Sabha, a position held by Jaitley.
What now needs to be seen is that after the constitution of his Cabinet, would the Prime Minister also have a revamp in his own secretariat. Would he have a new NSA or Principal Secretary? No conjectures can be made. Between us.