Nirmala Sitharaman was sworn in on Sept. 3, 2017 as India's first woman to serve as defense minister. Photo: Government of India

Three years after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a significant cabinet reshuffle, bringing in  India’s first woman as a full time defense minister along with an unprecedented number of former bureaucrats.

Nirmala Sitharaman, who was in charge of the ministry for commerce and industry, became independent India’s first woman to be appointed as a full time defense minister, a fact that immediately drew cheers from feminists. Hailing from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, she was an official spokesperson of the ruling BJP, before the party came to power in 2014. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had held the defense portfolio as an additional charge twice, in 1975 and 1980.

Considered a quiet and efficient minister, her elevation to cabinet rank also brought relief to her senior colleague, Arun Jaitley, who is also the finance minister. The government had come in for considerable criticism for not having a full-time defense or finance minister at a time when the Indian economy seems to be in a downward spiral.

A slew of former bureaucrats – a Union Home Secretary R K Singh, a police commissioner, Satya Pal Singh, a distinguished diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri and an urban government official known for his demolition of illegal structures, K J Alphons – led the news for their inclusion into the cabinet. This is unprecedented and speaks volumes about the lack of either the Prime Minister’s faith in his party colleagues to govern, or his dependency on experienced professionals to usher in a new form of governance.

The minister for petroleum, Dharmendra Pradhan, the minister for power, Piyush Goel, and the minister for commerce, Sitharaman were all seen as strong performers and thus promoted to cabinet ranks. A notable aspect of their promotions is the fact that they are not seen as a regional leaders – usually a consideration for cabinet slots – and instead being rewarded for performing well.

Why reshuffle

The expansion is primarily seen as a desperate need to shore up bench strength in the union cabinet. The fact that the government had to pick up a slew of bureaucrats indicates that the Prime Minister had little faith in party colleagues who are members of Parliament. This apparent lack of faith is buttressed by the fact that two of the four former bureaucrats inducted today, are yet to be elected to either house of Parliament.

A key factor for this expansion, said political sources in the BJP, was driven by the need to show that the government is serious about addressing the challenges facing the Indian economy. The demonetization in November last year has led to the economy shrinking in the March to June quarter to 5.7% from a high of nearly 7%, which is a trend that started in the last quarter. Industrial growth is also reported to be down and more worryingly, jobs are just not growing. The youth, considered a significant factor for the BJP’s success of the general election in 2014, is likely to get restive if measures don’t generate employment soon.

This has been one of the rare governments in independent India without a full-time defense minister for a long time. Manohar Parrikar, a close party colleague of Prime Minister Modi returned to his home state of Goa as Chief Minister after an uninspiring stint with the federal government. While Parrikar had initiated some measures to modernize the Indian military, key decisions on military acquisitions such as buying the French Rafale combat aircraft for a little over US$8 million, continued to be with the Prime Minister’s Office.

Political observers also noticed that the ministers who were asked to resign, received calls from the BJP Party President Amit Shah and not the Prime Minister. Seen as the closest aide to Prime Minister Modi since his days as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Shah wields considerable power and is also viewed as the key architect of a string of electoral successes, the last being the massive win in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

A number of junior ministers also received promotions, indicating the emergence of a new crop of leaders in the ruling BJP, all set to dominate the general elections slated for 2019. Notable among them was Piyush Goel, who is now in charge of the railways portfolio, a politically and economically significant ministry. A spate of rising railway accidents had put the earlier incumbent, Suresh Prabhu, under considerable pressure. After a recent major railway accident Prabhu tendered his resignation, but tweeted on Twitter that the Prime Minister had asked him to wait. He has now been allocated the commerce and industry portfolio.

The Politics

Any cabinet reshuffle in India is also a major political message to allies, the Opposition and the people. According to key political sources in the government, the BJP’s latest ally, the Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, the cabinet reshuffle is viewed as a slight to him. Kumar had exited the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance before the general elections in 2014, citing his disapproval of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. He returned to the alliance this year, in his home state, ditching the earlier alliance which had helped him register an impressive win in the state’s assembly elections.

Political sources told Asia Times that the reshuffle was a message to current and future political allies that the BJP will be continue to be the predominant political entity. Long-term allies such as the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena Party, which has been occasionally critical of Modi has now been put on notice, these sources said.

Portfolio Mis-match

Despite a number of prominent bureaucrats being sworn in as ministers, it is not clear how their earlier expertise will help the government. Hardeep Singh Puri, who was a career-diplomat for over three decades, was given the urban development portfolio with independent charge. It is not clear how his years of negotiating intricate trade and diplomatic treaties on the global stage will come in handy in a politically-sensitive portfolio such as housing and urban affairs. Ideally, he could have been placed in the ministries of external affairs, or defence or even commerce, which involves a considerable amount of negotiations on international trade.

K J Alphons, who retired from the Indian Administrative Service and built his reputation as a strict bureaucrat dealing with urban planning, has been given twin portfolios of the ministry of tourism and the ministry of electronics and information technology. The latter is a key ministry and is critical to the Prime Minister’s pet project, Digital India. R K Singh, who is a former union home secretary and has considerable experience in dealing with law and order, will now be in charge of the power ministry, while former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satya Pal Singh, who quit his police career prematurely to join the BJP and become a Member of Parliament, is now handling the ministry of human resource development. It is not clear what calculations went into these appointments, but they will continue to intrigue Delhi’s political circles for now.

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