The prime minister’s biggest curve ball, to use the expression he used in his US Congress speech, was clearly moving Smriti Irani from the education ministry to textiles in Tuesday’s cabinet reshuffle—given her minister of state was also given the boot, it is obvious Narendra Modi was quite unhappy with the ministry’s functioning. Apart from Ram Shankar Katheria’s hate speeches and talk of saffronisation of education, Irani herself was locked in a battle with the Prime Minister’s Office which wanted more autonomy for the IITs and the IIMs, a critical component of the budget’s plan to put in place ‘an enabling regulatory architecture … to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and research institutions’. The fights Irani got into, ranging from that over Rohith Vemula’s suicide to the one with Bihar’s education minister, only made matters worse. Though it is not clear why the prime minister didn’t get her to fall in line, his choice of Prakash Javadekar is a good one given the latter’s abilities to build consensus and a proven track record in the environment ministry. What is less easy to comprehend is why a Jayant Sinha should be demoted by being moved out of finance to aviation, though the argument made is that this was one way of ensuring the aviation ministry actually did some reforms instead of moving back in time, as it has, by introducing fare caps, for instance.
Taking away telecom from Ravi Shankar Prasad despite his good work in harmonisation of spectrum in the 1800MHz band and getting more 2100MHz spectrum from the defence forces appears odd, but it is possible Modi felt Prasad constantly blaming industry for call drops—and pushing for net neutrality which will hit the rollout of the internet in India—was alienating investors; it helps that Prasad’s successor is seen as efficient and someone who comes straight to the point. As in Irani’s case, it is not clear why Prasad wasn’t just asked to lower the pitch on call drops and net neutrality, but giving him back the law ministry suggests the prime minister has faith in his abilities. Given the judiciary’s strained relationship with the government, its entry into the government’s domain in many recent judgments, as well as the number of cases where the government is being pulled up by the judiciary, the law ministry needs a very mature hand at the wheel—indeed, putting in place the building blocks of the Bankruptcy Act, which is vital in ballooning NPAs are to be fixed, also requires close coordination with the judiciary.
While sacking some ministers of state remains a mystery—surely Radha Mohan Singh is more to blame for poor progress in the agriculture ministry than his minister of state—the general principle of asking ministers to focus on their work instead of grandstanding can’t be a bad thing. That is probably why, despite being an RSS favourite, Subramanian Swamy didn’t find himself in the Cabinet.