Cabinet Reshuffle

Prime Minister Modi's Cabinet reshuffle is an attempt to absolve himself of all the government's failures and continue with the Sangh Parivar’s divisive politics

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Anurag Thakur before he took oath as Minister in New Delhi on July 7. One of the most striking features of the Cabinet reshuffle is the elevation of rabble-rousing Hindutva supporters such as him and Giriraj Singh to prominent positions and Ministries. Photo: PTI

Police baton CHarge Samajwadi Party workers who were staging a protest against the BJP’s apparent tactics to turn the results in its favour in the district panchayat president election, in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh on July 3. Photo: PTI

Regardless of the outrage across the world over Father Stan Swamy’s death in custody, Prime Minister Modi effects a Cabinet reshuffle, which is seen as an attempt to absolve himself of all the failures of his government and continue with the Sangh Parivar’s divisive politics.

On July 6, a day after the announcement of the death in custody of human rights activist Father Stan Swamy, leaders of 10 major opposition parties, including three Chief Ministers, wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind requesting him that he direct the Union government to take action against those responsible for foisting false cases on Stan Swamy, keeping him in jail and subjecting him to inhuman treatment. The leaders demanded accountability for the wrong and callous actions against Stan Swamy and all others who had been jailed along with him. In the letter, they also sought the release of all those detained in the Bhima Koregaon case and those who are held in politically motivated cases under draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and on sedition charges.

The signatories to the letter expressing “intense grief and outrage” at the “death of Father Stan Swamy under custody” included Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee, M.K. Stalin and Hemant Soren of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand, respectively; H.D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader; Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); D. Raja of the Communist Party of India; Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference; Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party; and Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

At the time of writing this, four days after the letter was sent, there were no signs of the President having responded to the senior opposition leaders’ demand. There has also been no indication from the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that it has been moved or influenced by the worldwide outrage caused by the custodial death. Several important official international bodies, including Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and Eamon Gilmore, the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, condemned Stan Swamy’s death in custody.

However, a series of steps taken by the Union government, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the days immediately following the death of the 84-year-old Jesuit priest, signalled that the regime would continue with its abominable sectarian political pursuits and human rights violations regardless of the global condemnation. The much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle by Modi on July 7 clearly demonstrated this approach.

Also read: How Father Stan Swamy was silenced in death

The government’s spin doctors have sought to project the reshuffle as the result of an objective mid-term appraisal of Ministerial performance. Many other political analysts saw the exercise as one driven by a desire to address the government’s failures in dealing effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic and related challenges faced by the Ministries of Health and Information and Broadcasting.

Despite such analyses, one of the most striking features of the reshuffle is the elevation of rabble-rousing Hindutva supporters such as Anurag Thakur and Giriraj Singh to prominent positions and Ministries. Both had personally attacked and arraigned Stan Swamy and others arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case using vitriolic language. While no formal acknowledgment of these “services” has been made, the murmur within several Sangh Parivar outfits clearly points to their being rewarded for “batting on the front foot” in relation to the Hindutva agenda.

Undermining democracy in U.P.

During the same period, in the week following Stan Swamy’s custodial death, Adityanath, the BJP Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, unleashed a reign of terror across the State using goons from his party and other Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) outfits, literally undermining democratic processes in the local body elections at the block pramukh level.

In almost all the 75 districts, Sangh Parivar hooligans physically prevented candidates from all other parties, especially the principal opposition Samajwadi Party (S.P.), from filing nominations. They blocked the pathways leading to the nomination centres as the police stood by.

In many places, S.P. candidates were “kidnapped and kept in confinement” until the nomination process was completed. There were also reports of molestation of S.P’s women candidates in a number of places.

Local reporters in different parts of the State told Frontline that the violence was intense in places such as Kannauj, Sitapur, Unnao, Bulandshahar, Pilibhit, Unnao, Jhansi, Basti, Gorakhpur, Sambhal, Chitrakoot, Jalaun, Ayodhya, Fatehpur, Etah, Ambedkar Nagar and Maharajganj, where the results of the ward elections announced in early May clearly showed the S.P. had an edge.

The Sangh Parivar was enraged by the electoral reverses even in Hindutva bastions such as Gorakhpur and Ayodhya, and there were intense preparations to overturn the verdicts when the office-bearers were elected. BJP supporters roughed up Mata Prasad Pandey, former Assembly Speaker of the S.P., and damaged his vehicle.

The results of the primary tier of the three-tier local body elections in the first week of May showed that the BJP and its associates in the National Democratic Alliance had suffered major reverses in several important districts of Uttar Pradesh. At the time the projections were that the S.P. would win in as many as 804 panchayats compared with the BJP’s 601. According to these projections, the S.P. would have gained a dominant position in the State’s panchayati raj structure, at the district and block levels. The violence unleashed across Uttar Pradesh on July 8, the date for filing of nominations for the block pramukhs, was clearly intended to prevent this.

Also read: The terror of the UAPA

S.P. leaders point out that a nuanced version of the same strategy was adopted during the July 3 election of district panchayat presidents. Said Rajendra Chaudhary, chief spokesperson of the S.P.: “The pressure put on the district panchayat members deploying all foul means of the government machinery was evident in all parts of the State and this turned the results in many districts in the BJP’s favour. It is nothing short of killing democracy.”

Ravinder Kumar, president of the Rashtriya Mukti Morcha, a non-governmental organisation that is involved in monitoring indices of democracy in society and corruption in high places, said that despite the obvious overall gains in the local body office-bearers’ elections, the Adityanath government’s flagrant violations of electoral norms and people’s rights were getting widely noticed. “In the ultimate analysis, this is bound to be counterproductive for the BJP, as high-handedness and cover-up tactics will not work all the time. History has pushed out every trampler of democratic rights from the pedestals of overweening authority,” he said.

Cover-up tactics

Ravinder Kumar is also of the view that the Sangh Parivar spin doctors’ projections on the Cabinet reshuffle are characterised by cover-up and obfuscation. He said: “One striking feature of these pro-Modi analyses is with regard to the sacking of Ministers Harsh Vardhan and Prakash Javadekar, heading the Health and Information and Broadcasting Ministries, respectively. These analyses highlighted it as an indicator of the acceptance that the government had failed, especially during the devastating second wave of COVID-19, and that, at its core, this signalled course correction. But, the fact of the matter is that by removing these Ministers, Modi has absolved himself of all charges at the level of COVID mismanagement and the failures with regard to communication and information on the pandemic. And who has he brought in as replacement? Mansukh Mandaviya and Anurag Thakur, two leaders known for employing Hindutva communal rabble-rousing as the main ploy to cover up governance failures.”

The Cabinet reshuffle bears the clear stamp of electoral compulsions and the foregrounding of the Hindutva communal agenda in order to conceal the Modi government’s failures. Bihar-based BJP leader Giriraj Singh’s rabble-rousing has time and again been employed in various election-bound States in the past.

Also read: False positivity in India's COVID handling?

With Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections due in early 2022, he has been elevated as Cabinet Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj. Earlier he was Minister of State for Animal Husbandry and Fisheries. Clearly, it seems Giriraj Singh’s brand of combustible politics would be in greater demand in the forthcoming elections.

Uttar Pradesh, a key concern

The fact that as many as seven new Ministers—one-fifth of the 36 additions to the Council of Ministers—are from Uttar Pradesh shows that the State was a key factor behind the reshuffle. This takes the total representation from the State in the Union Ministry to 16.

The Ministers from Uttar Pradesh include Anupriya Patel, chief of the Apna Dal, a small but key BJP ally in the State. Among those dropped from the Cabinet is Santosh Gangwar, who held the Labour and Employment portfolio. Relatively soft-spoken and moderate, this leader from Uttar Pradesh dared to openly question the Adityanath government’s track record in COVID management. In all probability, this was a reason for his ouster.

Outspokenness of a different kind is said to have resulted in Bihar leader Ravi Shankar Prasad’s ouster from the Ministry. He held the Communications, Electronics & Information Technology, and Law & Justice portfolios. According to Sangh Parivar insiders, Ravi Shankar Prasad sought to become the news himself, even overshadowing Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah at times. That was not acceptable to the top two. Taking his place is Ashwini Vaishnav, a low-profile former bureaucrat known to have Modi’s confidence.

Ministry of Cooperation

Along with all this, the creation of a controversial new Ministry of Cooperation, led by Amit Shah, points to the continued pursuit of authoritarian policies and politics. By all indications, this move was prompted by the realisation that the vibrant cooperative movement had a lot to do with the return of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala’s Assembly elections recently. The idea behind creating the Ministry and getting Shah to head it is to unleash such administrative and political tricks to browbeat the LDF government in the State.

Also read: Sangh Parivar's U.S. funds trail

Clearly, despite the many nuances in the political moves made by the BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh in the context of Stan Swamy’s custodial killing, there is little doubt that they are unambiguously unidirectional. And this direction is the continuation of a sectarian, Hindutva-oriented communal regime that blatantly tramples upon human rights and people’s right to existence, and freedom of expression, by creating far-fetched narratives on themes such as nationalism and sedition, as seen in the case of Stan Swamy.

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