If there were any lingering doubts about the growing clout of the Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah, these were sufficiently dispelled on Tuesday. The seating arrangement at the oath taking ceremony of the new ministers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan said it all.
As the official number two in the National Democratic Alliance government, Home Minister Rajnath Singh should have been seated next to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But in this case, it was the party president who was given that pride of place.
This was indeed unusual as even Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was touted to be the real power centre in the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government, always sat across the aisle from the prime minister and his ministers. This seating arrangement reflected the distinction between the government and the party.
However, these lines were blurred on Tuesday, sending out an unmistakable message that Shah’s writ is not confined to party affairs alone and that he has equal clout in the functioning of the government.
The top two
When Shah took over as BJP chief inJuly 2014, it was understood that while Modi would concentrate on running the government, his trusted aide Shah would focus on strengthening the party organisation and strategising for the forthcoming assembly polls. But that’s clearly not the case as Tuesday's Cabinet expansion has shown. It further proved, if any proof was required, that Modi’s faith in his longtime friend and colleague Shah remains unshaken and that the prime minister values the party president’s judgment above others.
Shah held lengthy discussions with Modi before the final list was drawn up. All the ministerial hopefuls lined up for special meetings with the BJP president the day before the swearing in ceremony. Some of them were even informed about their induction to the council of ministers by Shah. While this is a normal practice in the Congress, it was a first for the BJP.
The expansion and rejig of portfolios undertaken by Modi clearly signifies the rise and rise of Amit Shah.
“It is normally said that Cabinet formation is the sole prerogative of the prime minister. But that’s not the case here, “ remarked a senior BJP leader. “We would earlier criticise the Congress when Sonia Gandhi played a pivotal role in picking Manmohan Singh’s ministers… now we are in the same boat.”
Both Modi and Shah were relative newcomers to the Delhi Durbar when the National Democratic Alliance formed its government in 2014. As a result, the prime minister leaned heavily on finance minister Arun Jaitley in picking his new team. On his part, Jaitely ensured that his protégés were given plum postings. Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Dharmenda Pradhan and Nirmala Seetharaman who hold key portfolios in the Modi government, were inducted at Jaitley’s behest and are known to be his loyalists.
But it was a different story this time as it was Shah who took centre stage while Jaitley had virtually no role in this expansion. On the other hand, BJP insiders pointed out, the choice of new ministers and the allocation of portfolios indicates that the finance minister’s wings have been clipped. Although Jaitely remains an indispensable member of the Modi government, the decision to divest him of the information and broadcasting ministry is being seen as a sign that his ratings have slipped. Similarly, the induction of SS Ahluwalia, Vijay Goel and MJ Akbar – who are not known to be Jaitley‘s favourites – indicates that the finance minister was kept out of the loop this time.
The list of candidates was obviously drawn up with an eye on the forthcoming assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Three ministers have been inducted from each of these poll-bound states. The representation given to Dalits and Other Backward Classes also reflects the BJP president’s priorities as Modi is depending on him to deliver a blockbuster victory in Uttar Pradesh which is critical for the party.
The BJP is working on weaning away the Dalits from the Bahujan Samaj Party and consolidating the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes in its favour as the Yadavs are known to vote as a block for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. Shah is under pressure to prove that he has not lost his magic touch since the 2014 general election when, as party general secretary incharge of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a whopping 72 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in this important Hindi heartland state.