When India’s cabinet was sworn in about six months ago, two key portfolios were given to one man. Arun Jaitley held both defence and finance, two of the four jobs considered most important in the Union government (the other two being home and external affairs). On the day he took office, Jaitley said he would hold the defence portfolio only for a few weeks, till someone else came along. At the time it was being speculated that this someone could be former journalist Arun Shourie. Whoever was on the prime minister’s mind did not come along and May turned to November.

It is for this reason that Manohar Parrikar, one of Bharatiya Janata Party’s best minds, has been plucked out from the office of Goa chief minister and brought into the cabinet.

But the question is: why get a chief minister, particularly one seen as very competent, to leave his job and move to Delhi? Why bring an outsider when there are over 300 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs available to Modi to choose from? And if Parrikar is the man Jaitley was keeping the seat warm for, why not bring him in earlier? Clearly someone else was in mind who did not work out for Modi.

In my opinion, there are two reasons why this problem of talent shortage has come about.

Pragmatic thinkers needed

The first reason is a general one. Any strong ideology, especially one like Hindutva which is based on anger and resentment against real or perceived injustices, will attract a certain sort of person. We must not expect those who gravitate towards the writings of such people as Guruji Golwalkar and Veer Savarkar and Deendayal Upadhyay to be subtle in their thinking. It requires people who believe in black and white shadings to buy into such a strong ideology.

The Congress is no longer an ideological party and that is why, despite holding 200 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha, it had more capable leaders than the BJP currently does with 280 seats. Not because it is a better party, but because it tends to attract better talent at the top.

The Congress had a choice of any of three first rate finance ministers (former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself, P Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee). On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must use the only finance minister he has available to also spend time on defence.

There are of course BJP leaders who show suppleness and pragmatism in their thinking (like Jaitley and Parrikar), but they tend to be less ideological and more flexible on Hindutva issues. Exactly the same situation is to be found in the other Hindutva party, the Shiv Sena. Its one sober leader, Suresh Prabhu, has been poached by Modi. All three men are exceptions in an otherwise ideological environment.

Experienced people left on the bench

The second reason for the talent shortage is more specific. It has to do with the prime minister’s insecurity. He does have some talented and experienced people on his bench, but he chooses not to use them. The excuse used is either that they are too old (LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, both of whom are in the Lok Sabha but with no work) or too young (Varun Gandhi, who is ambitious, smart and angling for more responsibility). The real reason these people are kept out is that they threaten Modi and he would rather not deal with them in the Cabinet.

He did the same thing in Gujarat as chief minister, where experienced leaders like Keshubhai Patel and Kashiram Rana, along with their supporters, were kept out of power.

But there is a hurdle in replicating in Delhi what he implemented in Gujarat.

In running the Gujarat government, as with any state government in India, Modi’s focus was mainly on governance. That is to say, executing policies that were, for the most part, sent down from the Centre. Legislation is not a big part of the chief minister’s work since the Centre keeps most of the power with itself. When the Vajpayee government opened up the power sector to private companies, Modi was excellent at implementing it in Gujarat, which has a power surplus, mainly from private generation.

Focus must shift to law-making

In doing this work, he empowered a team of bureaucrats who handled the work of the ministries, undercutting the politicians who were the ministers. There were only two ministers who had real responsibility (Saurabh Patel, who ran the ministries concerned with the economy, and Amit Shah, who was the deputy home minister). Neither man was given cabinet rank for a decade so that they understood that their work had to be supervised by Modi through the bureaucrats.

After his move to Delhi, the nature of the work has changed. Modi must focus on legislation and policy and not so much implementation. This has disrupted his model. He has tried to exert control by giving much of the work, as in Gujarat, to a few ministers he trusts, like Piyush Goel and Nirmala Sitharaman. They manage portfolios like energy and commerce and industry, which are Modi favourites.

But the main function of the Union government is policy and law-making. This is not the domain of bureaucrats, who tend to be implementers.

In managing this new function, Modi needs to bring in very bright people, of whom he does not have many in his party. And, unfortunately for them and for the government, those he has he does not want.