A long-talked-about round of changes in the Union Ministry seems to give the Bharatiya Janata Party the upper hand vis-a-vis its partners in government and the exercise proves to be a political statement in itself.
IT is a new-look government no doubt, but one that has a distinct Bharatiya Janata Party stamp on it, more so with L.K. Advani donning the role of Deputy Prime Minister formally. The clear political message sent out to both the BJP's allies and its voters through the appointment of Advani to the No. 2 position as also the other changes Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has effected in his Cabinet is that the BJP rules the roost, take it or leave it.
By making the line of succession clear, the BJP seems to be assuring its supporters that it has not bid farewell to its core ideology. The man who led the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, eventually catapulting the BJP to power at the Centre, could be the next Prime Minister, provided voters give the party a mandate in the next Lok Sabha elections. The allies' meek and quiet acceptance of Advani's elevation, notwithstanding his hardliner image, has only served to highlight the allies' helpless dependence on the BJP for political power.
Advani, who continues to keep the Home portfolio, becomes the seventh person to occupy the post of Deputy Prime Minister. The post, although it has no constitutional sanction, holds a symbolic value. In the past, a Deputy Prime Minister, be it Morarji Desai during Indira Gandhi's rule, or Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram during the Janata Party governments, or Devi Lal during V.P. Singh's tenure, was appointed to meet personal ambitions or the pulls and pressures of coalition politics. However, that is not true in the present case. The BJP has merely shed its mukhota (mask) of sobriety and unveiled its real, hardline face. And it is this new BJP that will seek another mandate in the next Lok Sabha elections.
The other striking aspect of the Cabinet reshuffle is Vajpayee's desperate desire actually to give it a new look. It is no doubt a "massive exercise" as is evident from the scale of changes, but there are still some loose ends. Another minor reshuffle appears imminent in the next few days, in order to please the allies. Vajpayee has attempted a major reshuffle of portfolios besides inducting a number of new faces. However, the exercise lost much of its sheen as the Trinamul Congress, which is back in the National Democratic Alliance after its misadventure in the West Bengal Assembly elections, did not join the Cabinet as was expected. Its leader Mamata Banerjee's characteristic histrionics came in the way of her return. She was firm on taking nothing but the Railways portfolio. Her demand, however, was not acceptable to the Prime Minister for the simple reason that Railway Minister Nitish Kumar, who belongs to the BJP's staunchest ally, the Samata Party, could not be removed. Said a senior BJP leader: "How can we remove Nitish just like that? We had offered her any other portfolio, even those which were in the BJP quota, but she was adamant. She got herself excluded from the government." According to him, the Trinamul leader was still welcome. "We want all the NDA partners who were originally with us, to come back," he said. Hence the BJP has kept back some key portfolios, such as Coal, which was relinquished by Ram Vilas Paswan, to allot to the Trinamul in case Mamata Banerjee wished to return.
THE most significant changes involve the Finance and External Affairs portfolios. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh have swapped places. Yashwant Sinha, under attack within the BJP, has been moved to the MEA in order to put the Finance Ministry back on rails. "Jaswant Singh had made himself indispensable in the MEA. He should be equally efficient in the Finance Ministry," a senior leader said. Yashwant Sinha has in recent days been blamed for the electoral setbacks the BJP suffered in various States. Jaswant Singh, who was Finance Minister in Vajpayee's short-lived 13-day government in 1996, is expected to seek to please the BJP's middle-class voters and bring them back into its fold by suitably moulding the government's economic policies.
Vajpayee's efforts to give the government a new thrust are reflected in the changes he has made concerning the portfolios of Labour, Health, Law and Justice and Rural Development. While Rural Development, relinquished by M. Venkaiah Naidu as he was made BJP president, has gone to Shanta Kumar, the Janata Dal (Uniteds') Sharad Yadav has been divested of Labour. Sharad Yadav had made known his opposition to some of the government's labour policies. Labour has now gone to the BJP's Sahib Singh Verma, who has been in the political wilderness ever since his removal as Delhi Chief Minister in 1998. He has been inducted at the personal initiative of the Prime Minister. Sharad Yadav has been given Food and Consumer Affairs. Shatrughan Sinha, who was sulking and had even refused to campaign for the BJP in the last round of Assembly elections, has been given Cabinet rank with the important portfolio of Health. C.P. Thakur resigned as Health Minister on June 30 after his survival in the Ministry had become doubtful owing to his spat with Maneka Gandhi. Maneka Gandhi too has been dropped because "she was nowhere with the NDA in Uttar Pradesh politics". Among the new faces is actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna, who has been rewarded for keeping the BJP's flag flying high in Punjab even in adverse circumstances. He is Minister of State in charge of Culture and Tourism.
Jana Krishnamurthy has been assigned Law and Justice, which was relinquished by Arun Jaitley who has been drafted for party work.
The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which had moved away from the NDA during the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2001, is back with a Cabinet berth. N.T. Shanmugam of the PMK has been made Minister of State for Food Processing with independent charge. Another PMK MP, A.K. Murthy, has been made Minister of State and given the charge of Railways. He replaces Digvijay Singh, who has been shifted to the MEA. Interestingly, by sending Digvijay Singh to the MEA, the Prime Minister has hinted at the exit of Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (N.C.) from the NDA. "We heard he is being elevated to the post of Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. There was no question of his elevation (to Cabinet rank)," a senior BJP leader said. In fact, the parting of ways between the N.C. and the NDA has become all the more certain now.
The Heavy Industries slot vacated by Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena has been given to Bala Saheb Vikhe-Patil, who has been elevated from the status of Minister of State. Another Shiv Sena nominee, Anant Geete, has been made Minister of State for Finance in place of Vikhe-Patil. However, contrary to expectations, Ananth Kumar and Shahnawaz Hussain have not been removed from Urban Development and Civil Aviation respectively. Similarly, Sushma Swaraj continues to hold Information and Broadcasting, contrary to speculation that she too might be drafted for party work.
Bihar, for reasons unknown, continues to get favourable treatment: two BJP MPs, Sanjay Paswan and Nikhil Kumar Chaudhary, have been made Ministers of State.
The Cabinet reshuffle has certainly been done with an eye on the Assembly elections later this year and the Lok Sabha elections. It remains to be seen, however, whether these will deliver the required results.