How the Prime Minister chose his ministers. The inside story
Ullekh NP | 29 May, 2014
How the Prime Minister chose his ministers. The inside story
On the morning of 26 May, when priests from the Lord Venkateshwara temple of Tirupati visited Narendra Modi at Delhi’s Gujarat Bhavan to offer him blessings, the BJP heavyweight who was to swear in as Prime Minister that day insisted that they stay on until his council of ministers joined him. Their names had not yet been made public; and so Modi called up all ministers-to-be and asked them to report immediately to Gujarat Bhavan to accept blessings from the priests of the famous Vedic temple in the hill town of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. Modi’s logic was that his performance as Prime Minister depended on that of each person in his council. “Blessing me alone isn’t enough. All ministers need your blessings,” Modi told the priests of the temple he had visited a month earlier at the height of the poll campaign, his first visit to the temple in the foothills of the Eastern Ghats.
Arun Jaitley had not as yet arrived for the function; and as soon as Modi appeared at the venue, the former Gujarat Chief Minister asked, “Where is Arunji?” The former Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha joined the group a little later. Soon after, Modi suggested that the members of the group introduce themselves, since there were many first-time MPs. The new Prime Minister is known to have spoken to his team of the need for hard work and diligence to meet people’s expectations.
Later in the day, Modi was piqued that details of the composition of his council of ministers had been leaked. The 63-year-old fourteenth Prime Minister of India showed his displeasure by forcing a delay in the announcement of the name of the speaker—that of Sumitra Mahajan, a veteran MP from Madhya Pradesh. Though such leaking of information to the media is par for the course in Delhi, the NDA chairman has found it a betrayal of the trust he reposed in the key members of his team. And his veiled message, presumably, was not lost on anyone. “The no-nonsense attitude of Modi is very clear. He doesn’t want any of his team members to shoot their mouth off or engage the media in a quid pro quo manner. This is a strong warning for any such people. Sometimes Modi’s silence is very loud,” says a senior BJP leader.
In allocating portfolios, Modi has performed quite the balancing act by offering the plum Ministry of External Affairs to Sushma Swaraj, until recently a die- hard critic. Swaraj had insisted that she wanted a key post—something that Modi could have turned down, according to people close to the matter. But he didn’t, because, after all, most of the other ministers are his own men and women, and Swaraj’s wings have been clipped whether or not she joins the Government. With an emphatic win at the polls securing enough numbers for the BJP to run a government on its own, Modi is now simply the most powerful Indian political leader of his generation.
While making such concessions to those who waged a prolonged war against him—Swaraj had opposed Modi’s nomination as the BJP campaign spearhead, and later his being pitched as the PM candidate as well; not to mention opposing the nomination of Amit Shah as pradhan (party in-charge) of Uttar Pradesh—Modi also flexed his muscles to get people he trusts top-notch positions in the Cabinet. Arun Jaitley, who had zealously campaigned to make Modi the PM candidate, was rewarded with the coveted Ministries of Finance, Corporate Affairs and Defence, contrary to expectations in a section of the media that losing the Lok Sabha election from Amritsar meant he would lose his political clout within the BJP. A newspaper went to the extent of speculating that he was in competition with his junior colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad for the Law and Justice portfolio. Though Jaitley is expected to hand over Defence in July following an expected reshuffle, he will remain one of the most powerful ministers in Modi’s Cabinet and many party insiders believe that the master strategist has been duly recognised for his efforts.
By naming 38-year-old former soap opera queen Smriti Irani to a Cabinet post— she will hold the Human Resources portfolio, which is typically the preserve of senior Cabinet colleagues—Modi has sent out a bold message that a BJP leader describes as “a power statement that his writ alone would run in the new dispensation”.
“Giving a ministerial berth to Nirmala Sitharaman was another such statement, especially for the consumption of his detractors within,” he adds. Sitharaman, an articulate spokesperson of the BJP, has been made Minister of State with independent charge of the Ministry of Commerce, besides being junior minister to Jaitley in Finance and Corporate Affairs. She has not shared the best of ties with Swaraj. In fact, the two had slugged it out on social networking site Twitter over the Telangana issue. The senior BJP leadership had to intervene to bring an end to the public spat.
Incidentally, politicians alleged to be beneficiaries of corporate largesse have been excluded by Modi, who has vowed to run a cohesive and high-powered Prime Minister’s Office. In response to sharp accusations by Left liberals of having corporatised the polls, a BJP leader says that the new dispensation would not embrace the corporate classes in private, as the Congress and previous governments have done. “No such interaction with [the corporate world] would be secretive,” he adds. Historically, the Congress has been the biggest beneficiary of poll funds from India’s corporate houses that have meticulously financed elections in return for anointing favourites in crucial ministries, making it possible for policies to be tweaked in their favour. “Though our leadership will be friendly with [the corporate world], such manipulations to make huge profits out of funding won’t happen anymore,” the BJP leader avers.
Modi, according to party insiders, has kept at arm’s length leaders of his coalition with a known propensity for striking gold while in power. The omission of former Union Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who defeated RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s wife and former Chief Minister Rabri Devi for the Saran Lok Sabha seat, means that leaders who have come “under the needle of suspicion for corruption” have been kept out, says a BJP leader. Rudy, the flamboyant BJP politician who was Minister for Civil Aviation in the AB Vajpayee Government, had come under media scrutiny years ago in a case involving non-payment of hotel bills.
Modi also wanted to make sure that nobody who could be easily influenced by corporate houses made it to his team. By choosing younger leaders such as Piyush Goyal, 49, as Minister of State with independent charge of Coal and Power, Modi also wanted control of such portfolios that could be ‘misused’ in exchange for bribes. A dynamic treasurer for the BJP, Goyal has been Modi’s point- person in managing BJP poll advertisements. A chartered accountant by profession, Goyal has over the past year increasingly emerged as a voice of the BJP on economic affairs. Similar was the logic in bestowing the crucial Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas on Dharmendra Pradhan, a 44-year-old leader known for his integrity. “Modi wants to be very sure that shadows of corruption of the previous regime over gas pricing in favour of certain companies, etcetera, [do] not hurt his government,” says another BJP functionary without naming companies that typically attempt to influence policy decisions through ministers they are close to.
Modi has managed to keep businessmen at bay while deciding on his ministers—a major departure from previous regimes that have reportedly seen much lobbying by corporate houses to install their men in key posts. Such pliable yes-men were the bane of the UPA regime, which witnessed senior ministers doling out concessions on everything from air waves to coal and gas to powerful domestic companies. “Modi wants this foolery to end,” says a BJP leader who dismisses Modi’s own links to certain business houses such as Adani as “merely professional relationships which he has with all top Indian companies besides entrepreneurs”.
With former IB chief Ajit Doval as National Security Advisor and Nripendra Mishra as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister—both highly experienced hands—Modi is looking at having in place a highly functional PMO that will oversee all aspects of governance, both locally and overseas, BJP leaders say.
“I am glad that this whole media kite- flying has now become a joke,” says a BJP leader, referring to the various political names that appeared in the media as probables on the list of Team Modi, including those of former ministers such as Arun Shourie and Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan, among various others. Much to the anguish of many such leaders, the BJP can immediately fill only two Rajya Sabha posts , which will go to Sitharaman and Prakash Javadekar, who has been made Minister of State with independent charge of Information and Broadcasting. Allegedly, Mumbai- based corporate honchos have either been behind churning out such rumours or been approaching politicians based on media reports for positions, says a person close to Modi. He doesn’t specify names, but alleges that they were the same ones feeding the media with ‘breaking news’, all of which proved to be untrue. Some “gossip-mongers”, he says, “were busy gambling over names for positions from Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission to the next economic advisor to the Prime Minister. All of it was humbug.”
For the moment, the new Government isn’t just playing its cards close to its chest, it is also discouraging lobbying by so-called experts who have an opinion or two on anything on the planet, says a BJP leader. Modi has also ticked off a senior Mumbai banking executive, saying he was committed to running his government with elected representatives and not ‘experts’.
The Cabinet formation exercise also saw Modi neutralising any opposition to his leadership. Thanks to the RSS’s recommendation that leaders who are 75 years of age or older should become ‘mentors’ instead of jostling for power, Modi could lasso senior leaders such as LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. Both Advani and Joshi had insisted on contesting the Lok Sabha polls instead of opting for a Rajya Sabha route to Parliament. Advani had waged a war—both overtly and covertly—against Modi over the latter being named the prime ministerial candidate, and prior to that, the party’s campaign chief. Joshi too had sulked and cried foul when he was shifted out of Varanasi to Kanpur to make way for Modi to contest that city’s seat—a BJP gameplan to help the party gain seats across Poorvanchal, which encompasses eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Interestingly, the cabinet formation exercise was handled by Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah and party president Rajnath Singh, keeping RSS leader Suresh Soni in the loop—with the final call on the choice of each minister taken by Modi himself. Sanjeev Balian was named Minister of State in consideration of the contribution of the Jat community in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won an overwhelming majority. Several Cabinet berths went to Brahmins because most of them were senior leaders such as Jaitley, Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari. OBCs have 13 representatives in the Council of Ministers, Tribals six and Dalits three— of a total of 46. Poll-bound states such as Maharashtra were given due representation along with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the states that ensured a resounding victory for Modi.
On 26 May, Modi also proved to naysayers that he is in no mood to bow to what some political analysts call ‘frivolous and petty demands’ from allies—a constant headache for the previous government, dependent as it was on recalcitrant allies such as the DMK—by inviting Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to India despite opposition from an ally in Tamil Nadu. Earlier, India’s foreign policy over Sri Lanka had invariably fallen prey to local pressures, giving China room to further its designs on the island-nation.
In a diplomatic coup, Modi even invited SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Some foreign policy experts suggest that none of these leaders wanted to miss an opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the most powerful prime ministers India has elected in recent decades; and their attendance was proof enough of this, argues American military expert Edward Luttwak.
A BJP leader close to Modi sums up the message: “With the rank and file of the party behind him, he is more powerful than any other Indian leader in several decades. Now he wants all his ministers to work overtime to finish their tasks. [They] have been asked to burn the midnight oil and produce results.”
Several of his ministers may take a while to get used to such tough discipline— such as 18-hour workdays. But as a workaholic who sleeps barely a few hours, wakes up at the crack of dawn and keeps fit doing yoga, it is business as usual for Modi.