The Union Cabinet’s reshuffle and expansion on Sunday saw elevation of those seen as performing while sending out a political message on BJP’s intention to expand its footprint in south and eastern India with an eye to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
It also sought to keep caste and community balance in various election-bound states.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the changes as his government seeks to fulfil its ambitious agenda, including Housing for All, doubling farmers income by 2022, and a Clean India by 2019. The government also intends to raise India’s renewable energy capacity to 175 Gigawatt by 2022.
The expansion and reshuffle took place with less than two years left for the next General Elections in 2019 and the opposition repeatedly questioning the government’s performance in some critical areas, including economic growth and creation of jobs.
The reshuffle saw Dharmendra Pradhan, Piyush Goyal, Nirmala Sitharaman, and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi being elevated to Cabinet rank apparently based on their respective performance as Ministers of State (Independent Charge).
While Sitharaman has got the weighty portfolio of defence, Pradhan has got skill development in addition to petroleum and natural gas he was handling.
Modi has laid a lot of thrust on skilling youth, who constitute a large proportion of the population. The government is keen to ensure that benefits of its various skill initiatives reach the people adequately before the next General Elections.
In its election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party had talked of preparing the world’s largest workforce and developing India as a knowledge powerhouse.
Pradhan is also the key BJP face in Odisha where the party is seeking to improve on its performance in 2019 and then throw out the Biju Janata Dal from power in the next assembly polls.
Piyush Goyal has been given the weighty portfolio of railways after Suresh Prabhu offered to quit following several accidents in the recent past.
Water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation have gone to Nitin Gadkari, who is seen as a leader who delivers on targets.
Modi has been laying thrust of efficiency of water use in agriculture and expanding the country’s irrigation potential. Despite efforts by the BJP-led government, the country’s first river-linking project between Ken and Betwa rivers has not been unveiled so far.
The impact of work on rejuvenating Ganga is directly linked to Modi’s own Varanasi parliamentary constituency.
In its manifesto, the BJP had promised to ensure the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority.
With the government keen to improve the country’s global standing in sports, the portfolio has now been given to Col Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (retd), a silver medallist shooter in the Athens Olympics.
The government is also making efforts to improve India’s rankings in ease of doing business. The Labour Ministry has seen a change with Santosh Kumar Gangwar replacing Bandaru Dattatreya.
Former Home Secretary Raj Kumar Singh, who has been given independent charge of the power portfolio, is expected to continue the work done by his predecessor Piyush Goyal.
Singh has also been allocated new and renewable energy and has the onerous task of meeting India’s ambitious targets of developing renewable energy.
Housing and urban development portfolio, in which decisions and performance impact the vast urban middle class, has been assigned to experienced former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri.
The ministry has a critical role to effectively manage India’s growing urbanisation and in achieving goals such as Housing for All by 2022 and Clean India.
Puri will take forward the work done by M. Venkaiah Naidu before he was chosen to contest the vice presidential poll. He is the third member from the Sikh community in the NDA government.
Former bureaucrat K.J. Alphons Kannanthanam has been given independent charge of tourism, a sector that has immense potential to create jobs and boost revenues.
The induction of Kannanthanam, elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as Defence Minister, and appointment of Anant Kumar Hegde as Minister of State for Skill Development is being seen as a signal of the BJP reaching out to south India where the party is relatively weak.
The party had earlier chosen Venkaiah Naidu, who hails from Andhra Pradesh, as its vice presidential candidate.
Hegde hails from Karnataka which will go to the polls in the first half of next year and the BJP hopes to form government in the state.
With Kannanthanam, the Modi government has representation now from Kerala and also from the Christian community.
The BJP has big ambitions in Kerala and wants to form government there in the next elections.
The expansion and induction saw the BJP leadership picking up members of the ministerial team from diverse communities and states.
Gajendra Singh Shekhawat belongs to Rajasthan and hails from the Rajput community, Satya Pal Singh hails from the Jat community in Uttar Pradesh, Virendra Kumar hails from Madhya Pradesh and belongs to Dalit community, Ahswini Kumar Choubey and Shiv Pratap Shukla belong to Brahmin community and hail from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively.
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will go to polls by the end of 2018.
(Prashant Sood can be contacted at [email protected])