The induction of four former bureaucrats with little political experience into the cabinet during Sunday’s reshuffle has raised a question: does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision indicate a talent deficit in the Bharatiya Janata Party?

The four were among the nine new faces included in the Union council of ministers. Two of them, RK Singh and Satyapal Singh, are first-time MPs. The other two, Hardeep Puri and KJ Alphons, are not even members of Parliament.

RK Singh, the BJP MP from Arrah in Bihar, is a former Indian Administrative Service officer of the 1975-batch Bihar cadre and a former Union home secretary. Satyapal Singh, the BJP MP from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, is a 1980-batch Indian Police Service officer from the Maharashtra cadre who retired as chief of the Mumbai Police. Hardeep Puri is a former Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1974 batch and served as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013. KJ Alphons, a 1979 batch Kerala cadre Indian Administrative Service officer, was known as “Demolition Man” during his stint with the Delhi Development Authority – the Capital’s primary landowner and housing authority – for ordering the razing of thousands of illegal structures.

Some commentators have suggested that the former bureaucrats will bring technocratic expertise to governance. Their appointments are in keeping with Modi’s propensity for relying on bureaucrats – a practice he has followed not just in Delhi but even while he was chief minister of Gujarat.

While relying on bureaucrats to get tasks accomplished is acceptable, giving them preference over party colleagues in ministerial appointments seems a little more suspect – or at least, that is what the Opposition was quick to suggest.

“The prime minister does not trust his political colleagues,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari alleged after the reshuffle. “He does not have any faith in them – is the message he is sending out to his own party by inducting these people [former bureaucrats] into the Union council of ministers. Therefore, the broader message is that a government which was run by bureaucrats, controlled by the PMO [prime minister’s office], is now going to have bureaucrats in ministerial position also.”

Satyapal Singh (top left) and RK Singh (top right) are first-time MPs while Hardeep Puri (bottom left) and KJ Alphons (bottom right) are not parliamentarians. (Credit: PTI)

Party of two?

Over the last three years, Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah have sidelined most of the party’s senior members, leading to claims that the BJP hierarchy is made up of only two leaders. Soon after Modi won the election, party veterans such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were dropped from the Parliamentary Board and confined to a “Margdarshak Mandal” or guiding committee. Since then, the BJP core group – an informal body consisting of members of the Parliamentary Board, party general secretaries and leaders holding charge of state party units – has also been jettisoned.

Though the Parliamentary Board continues to meet occasionally, BJP leaders admit that the body exists only in name – all important decisions are taken by Modi and Shah.

This has given rise to speculation that the prime minister does not think highly of his party colleagues, never mind what BJP leaders may say about themselves in public. As Arun Shourie, a former minister in the previous BJP government led by Vajpayee, said on June 10: “The thing is there is no minister today, this is the government of two and a half men.” Though he did not take names, his comment was interpreted to have meant Modi and Shah, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as the “half” man.

This was the message Sunday’s cabinet reshuffle seemed to send out too – that Modi may be at the centre of BJP leaders’ political efforts but they do not appear at the centre of his strategy.