Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new cabinet took the oath of office on Thursday at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. Photo: Twitter / @narendramodi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally announced his new cabinet after winning a historic second term, balancing elements of the far-right Hindutva ideology with a few significant new faces seen as experts who will bring a fresh perspective to India’s foreign policy. However, the economy will continue to be under the prime minister’s office in all practical respects, as it was in the first term.

Interestingly, the cabinet seems to have undergone a few last-minute changes, with Modi’s closest political lieutenant from his home state Gujarat, Amit Shah, being inducted as the union home minister. Traditionally, this is considered the second-most powerful position in India, commanding the intelligence, police and center-to-state-relations portfolios.

Shah had a similar role when Modi was in power in Gujarat, but had to be removed after he was accused of murder. However, the courts cleared Shah of the charge after Modi came to power in 2014. By bringing in Shah from Gujarat, Modi has now established that he is the sole center of power in the new government.

On Friday, President Ram Nath Kovind directed allocation of portfolios to the members of the Union Council of Ministers.

There was some speculation that Amit Shah could be allocated the Ministry of Finance. In fact, columnists were quick to write op-eds saying that he had experience running a local cooperative bank and understood finance better than Arun Jaitley, the last finance minister. However, the Ministry of Finance, though a significant role, is not seen as powerful a portfolio as the Home Ministry.

Significantly, Rajnath Singh, who was the earlier home minister, had to side-step and become the new defense minister. While this is also a powerful position, it has been reduced under Modi to an adjunct of the prime minister’s office. This is also a politically significant move, since Singh hails from the politically influential state of Uttar Pradesh and has a large following there.

Interestingly, Nirmala Sitharaman, who became India’s first full-time defense minister in the last term, has been given finance. An articulate spokesperson for the party, she is expected to work closely with the prime minister’s office.

New external face

The biggest surprise in the new cabinet is the inclusion of S Jaishankar as the new external affairs minister. This is the first time a former foreign secretary has been given a full cabinet post running a major ministry. This is also significant as external affairs is a part of the crucial cabinet committee on security. The CCS decides all major decisions on external challenges posed by adversarial states and big-ticket defense acquisitions.

Jaishankar brings to the role major expertise regarding two of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges. He has served as ambassador in the US and China, and spent a decade dealing with both. He was part of the team that defused the Doklam military standoff between India and China two years ago. He also, as a joint secretary in the foreign ministry, dealt with the historic India-US nuclear deal.

However, his appointment creates an interesting new situation for the current national security adviser, Ajith Doval, who had considerable clout in Modi’s first term. A former intelligence head, Doval came to the Modi government with a massive reputation that bordered on legend in the Indian firmament. He was not given the minister of state status, as is wont for NSAs in the past.

While he was senior to Jaishankar in the first term, in the second he is now significantly lower in protocol. This could be an indication that Modi is seeking to receive more diverse views on foreign policy and security than earlier. Shah as his home minister will also weigh in significantly on such matters.

The other faces

Smriti Irani, who defeated Congress chief Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, a Congress bastion, by a huge margin in the general election, continues with the minister of textiles portfolio. She also received the post of minister of women and child development.

For the start of Modi’s second term, Ravi Shankar Prasad was retained as the minister of law and justice, electronics and information technology. This is a significant ministry since it will deal with all technology policies, which have seen major tensions in the past with global companies like Facebook.

Major issues such as privacy of users, ownership of data and the push to localize all online data within India have erupted into major debates with significant economic considerations. Public policies over these are expected to become more security-focused under the current regime, and Chinese technology companies that have a presence in India are likely to face some fresh challenges.

Among other significant notables, Prakash Javadekar will be the new information and broadcasting minister and Ram Vilas Paswan will be minister of consumer affairs, food and public distribution. Nitin Gadkari will remain minister for road transport and highways.

The list excluded several Bharatiya Janata Party veterans including former cabinet ministers Jai Prakash Nadda, Maneka Gandhi and Vijay Goel. The exclusion of Nadda is being explained as an indication of the possibility that he could replace Shah as the BJP president. The BJP does not allow a minister to also hold a party post simultaneously.

Maneka Gandhi is likely to be appointed the “interim speaker,” who will chair the oath taking of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. The prime minister will continue to be in charge of the ministry of public grievances and pensions, besides the departments of atomic energy and space.

In a tweet last night, Modi described his team as “a blend of youthful energy and administrative experience.”

In deciding the cabinet list, Modi seems to have rewarded politicians from central and western states that returned huge numbers to the BJP in the general elections (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh). But he appeared to be even more inclined to accommodate the members of parliament whose states have scheduled elections for later this year or the next.

For instance, the eastern state of Bihar, where elections are scheduled in 2020, has been granted five representations. From Haryana, where assembly elections are scheduled later this year, three of the 10 BJP MPs elected from the state have been elevated as ministers. From Maharashtra, where assembly elections are also scheduled this year, five MPs have been accommodated in the Council of Ministers. Meanwhile, assembly elections are also scheduled this year in Delhi, as well, but just one BJP MP from the Union Territory has found representation in the Union Cabinet so far. It is likely that the prime minister will go in for an expansion of the Union Cabinet within a few months.

Surprising exclusions

The Cabinet formation exercise has thrown up several contradictions. If “performance” was the criteria for selecting ministers, then the exclusion of Suresh Prabhu and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore – reputed as high-performing ministers in Modi’s first term – have been inexplicably kept out. If former culture minister Mahesh Sharma was dropped for his “controversial statements,” it does not explain the re-induction of Giriraj Singh, who is known for threatening political opponents regularly.

At this point in time a critical question hangs: Unlike the situation in the first term, will Modi permit his ministers to function independently? In the first term, issues concerning all ministries had been monitored and guided by the Prime Minister’s Office. If the same trends continue, it is likely that the prime minister will hand out 100-day targets for his ministers soon.

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