Fresh energy and shattered ceilings: Modi gets a new-look Cabinet with 2019 poll looming

Nirmala Sitharaman as defence minister is the biggest change, although the reshuffle featured many other storylines.

With a little more than a year and a half to go for Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday revealed a thorough reworking of his Council of Ministers, shuffling some around, downgrading others and throwing in some surprises. Nirmala Sitharaman was the big winner, moving from Minister of State for Commerce to the Defence Ministry. In moving Sitharaman into one of the top four ministries, Modi makes his biggest move in elevating younger talent. Sitharaman will sit alongside External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the Cabinet Committee on Security, making it the first time in India’s history that two women are on one of the country’s top decision-making bodies.

But Sitharaman’s elevation was not the only big story to come out of Sunday’s announcements. Modi did not simply fill vacancies or move portfolios around. The new-look Cabinet and Council of Ministers includes a number of surprise picks that suggest a new approach to sourcing talent. The big picks here were two civil servants who have directly been moved into independent charges: career diplomat Hardeep S Puri, who has been made Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Housing and Urban Affairs, and retired Indian Administrative Services officer K Alphons, who was given independent charge of the Tourism Ministry as well as being made Minister of State for Electronics and IT.

Suresh Prabhu – who conspicuously offered to resign as railway minister last month after several accidents on his watch – was moved to the Ministry of Commerce, with former Power Minister Piyush Goyal taking over the Indian Railways. Smriti Irani, who seemed to have lost the trust of the leadership after a vocal stint as Human Resource Development minister, has been kept as Minister for Textiles and Information & Broadcasting.

The reshuffle is not a complete overhaul of Modi’s key team. The core Raisina Hill ministries of Home, External Affairs and Finance remain unchanged, with Sitharaman now joining in the Defence Ministry. There were no major demotions, with even Prabhu simply being shunted to Commerce rather than dropped. A few ministers had resigned earlier in the week, Rajiv Pratap Rudy being the most prominent face, after Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah signaled that they were carrying out this exercise.

Political goals

Some of the picks for the new-look Council were made with political goals in mind. Dharmendra Pradhan, who was elevated into the Cabinet, is a prominent face from Odisha, a state that the BJP hopes will prove to be fertile ground. And Alphons, the bureaucrat-turned-minister, is a prominent Christian from Kerala, where the Church plays an important role in local politics.

But while it may not be a complete overhaul, the reshuffle gives the administration an opportunity to reset after a couple of disastrous weeks. The rejig was very conspicuously not a response to immediate setbacks like the legal failure in the Right to Privacy case or the economic woes – both Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have kept their portfolios.

Instead, it appears to be careful strategising from Modi and Shah, planning for the future as the government enters its final stretch ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The spotlight will fall most prominently on Sitharaman, and possibly the civil servant inductees. But the main question will be whether Modi government can notch up significant victories, particularly on the economic front, especially as it has become clear that one of its two flagship efforts – demonetisation, with the Goods and Services Tax being the other – has turned out to be a massive disaster.

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