Prime Minister Narendra Modi began 2021 proclaiming that India had defeated Covid-19 – and would now help the world defeat the virus with Made-in-India vaccines. Since then, just about everything has gone downhill for his government. The large-scale farmer protests against three new agricultural bills became even bigger, garnering greater global attention. This drove Modi’s government into a bitter fight with social media networks, Twitter in particular.

Then, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s top leadership put aside questions of governance over March and April to focus on winning West Bengal polls. The party ended up losing the elections – and the government failed to act effectively as a massive Covid wave engulfed the country. India’s healthcare system crumbled, making global headlines.

Meanwhile, Modi’s much-touted plan to maximise vaccine diplomacy fell to pieces as India experienced severe shortages: all exports were halted as domestic criticism mounted of the government’s confused policies.

Not during the disastrous demonetisation exercise or the pre-Covid economic downturn had Modi’s stock fallen so low. This is the context to Wednesday’s massive ministerial reshuffle.

The Indian Express reported that,

“as many as 36 new faces were inducted and 12 sitting ministers were shown the door taking the tally in the Council of Ministers to 78 (including the PM), just a notch short of the statutory limit of 81.

The changes mark, arguably, the largest-scale purge in recent times with the Prime Minister divesting six of 23 sitting Cabinet ministers – over one fourth – and one Minister of State (Independent Charge) of their ministerial responsibilities.”

The specifics are indeed interesting. Heavyweight ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Sadananda Gowda have been dropped. A former bureaucrat and private sector official has been placed directly in the Cabinet and put in charge of three major ministries. The Council of Ministers has 36 new faces, with important inclusions in terms of geographical spread and caste representations.

The top leadership remains the same – Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Indeed, despite criticism, the entire economic team has been retained. Instead, the overhaul has been focused on social sector ministries and pandemic-affected ones, with the most predictable scalp being that of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with BJP MPs, ahead of cabinet expansion. Credit: @DrRutvij via Twitter

But, taking a step back, the larger message is evident.

Modi has been in charge for seven years now. The mid-way point of his second term is just a few months away. If all was going well, there would not be the need to shed 12 ministers or to expand the council of ministers so tremendously. Modi 2.0 needed a reset.

When Modi came to power in 2014, it was common to talk of the BJP as a party with a talent deficiency – a critique underlined by Amit Shah’s willingness to embrace turncoats from other parties over the years. Yet Modi’s far-smaller original council of ministers was portrayed as a sign that he intended to live up to his promise of “minimum government”.

In some ways, this major overhaul is both an acknowledgment of the failures of that approach, as well as an opportunity to promote some of the talent that the party has nurtured or recruited – as with Congress rebel Jyotiraditia Scindia who was parachuted into a cabinet post.

After his thumping re-election in 2019, Modi prioritised issues at the heart of his Hindutva project, such as Kashmir, the Ram temple, the Citizenship Act amendments, rather than developmental ones. Two of those have run aground, while the one major reform move – the farm laws – is also floundering.

In other words, even without the spectre of Covid-19, which undoubtedly shone a harsh light on the misplaced priorities and mishandled governance of the current dispensation, Modi 2.0 may have needed rejigging.

Characteristically, Modi’s decision making appears to be inscrutable even for his top leadership. As the Express reported,

“Many in the ruling establishment are searching for reasons behind the exit of others: DV Sadananda Gowda, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank, and Prakash Javadekar (all Cabinet Ministers) and Santosh Gangwar (MoS Independent Charge).

More so, given the fact that all these ministers consistently – and faithfully – read the government’s brief whether it was on neem-coated urea (Gowda); hobbling Chinese electronics and software app firms and taking Twitter to task for its alleged political bias (Prasad); National Education Policy (Nishank); environmental clearances (Javadekar) or labour codes (Gangwar)...

Sources said the Ministers got no indication of their imminent exit as the final call was taken after calculations of governance and political imperatives made by the government and the party leadership.”

And this brings us to the weakness behind any claim that this is a new-look Modi government.

While the larger numbers and the political calculations are worth unpacking, there is little indication that the central tenets this government upholds and that many hold responsible for the disastrous handling of Covid-19 will change: there is tremendous concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, an obsessive focus on narrative management, utter disdain for consultative policy-making, preference for grand announcements and critics are treated as enemies.

Maybe Modi felt the need to spread the ministerial largesse over a larger set of BJP leaders, just as coalition governments in the past sought to include all their constituents. Maybe the prime minister hoped that doing this mid-way through his term would provide enough time to rectify some of the administration messes in time for 2024. Maybe he had to send a message to some of the senior leaders about their place in the overall set up.

But if all that changes are the faces, and not the principles or the priorities, does anyone realistically expect even a reshuffle of this scale to significantly alter either governance or the way the government is perceived?