The massive redrawing of the government in Wednesday’s Cabinet expansion has the seeds of the political battle lines over which the 2024 elections will be fought.
As per the numbers, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre now has 27 Other Backward Class (OBC) Ministers, 12 Ministers belonging to the Scheduled Castes, eight Ministers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, five Ministers from minority religious communities, and 11 women Ministers, who represent some of the more marginalised regional areas of the country as well.
Out of the 77 Ministers in the Council of Ministers therefore, 48 are from non-upper caste backgrounds. This redrawing of the government therefore represents the direction in which the Modi government will move the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its social appeal as well, to try and break in public perception its upper caste moorings. Political scientist Badri Narayan, author of a well regarded biography of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram, terms it, “The widening of the social pyramid via governance by bringing as many communities as possible into the orbit of democratic power.”
The first test for it will be the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. Currently, the government has 14 Ministers from the State and today’s seven inclusions have three OBC Ministers, three Scheduled Caste and only one Brahmin Minister.
The Cabinet expansion also points to the large number of inclusions from the east and the northeast, with Ministers from Assam, Manipur and Tripura, and four Ministers from West Bengal, sworn in on Wednesday, indicating that the region remains a major political project for the BJP in the coming years.
An interesting point in the reshuffle are the inclusions from Maharashtra. The four additions from the State, including of powerful Maratha leader and former chief minister Narayan Rane, points to the fact that the loss of Maharashtra, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that happened subsequent to the 2019 Assembly polls in the State, after the alliance with the Shiv Sena broke, still rankles. It does not bode well for a peaceful relationship between the Centre and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra.
Political scientist Rahul Verma says the axing of Ministers of Departments like Social Justice and Empowerment, Health, Education, Labour, Information and Technology, and Environment and Climate Change, and the bringing in of technocrats from among the political cohort group “points to the fact that these Ministries will be key in the government going forward”.
The exclusions, according to sources, are a combination of a case of individual evaluation and finding the Ministers wanting in performance, but also the failure of these Ministers to explain the major controversies dogging these departments in a way that does not get the government deeper into the mess.
With the dropping of seven Cabinet Ministers, including Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar, only Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi remain flag bearers of the old National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that existed under late prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. While much had already changed under Mr. Modi’s leadership of the NDA, this rejig is a more comprehensive passing of an era.