What the fourth cabinet shuffle of the Modi government means for the next few years.
A number of ministers lost their jobs and their replacements are more diverse - more women, geographical diversity, and young people
The performance of the new cabinet will depend on how much freedom they get from the Prime Minister’s Office
Some changes were made with an eye on elections in the next few years and some were made with a longer time frame in mind
On July 7th, Prime Minister Modi announced changes in the Council of Ministers. While some, like External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, stayed on after the shakeup, others did not.
The list of dropped cabinet members includes several major ministers. Though the Environment, Civil Aviation, and Education Ministries all have new leaders, the most important changes were elsewhere - IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan also left their ministries.
Vardhan’s exit is a bit easier to parse - he was responsible for the COVID response and recovery. Though things have calmed down over the past few months, he is still in the hot seat due to the exceedingly poor response during the winter and spring. Prasad’s case is a bit more interesting - he has spent a good portion of the past few months defending new rules for social media platforms against domestic and international criticism. Though most tech companies have since agreed to abide by them, Prasad couldn’t save himself. The failure to properly and efficiently implement the rules while avoiding the massive amount of criticism is in all likelihood what spelled his end.
The new cabinet is also more diverse than before - there are more women, more people with advanced degrees, more recent party entrants, more young people, and more geographically diverse ministers.
Women have generally been underrepresented in the government - though India has had a female Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) and President (Pratibha Patel), the cabinet has not always been a picture of gender equality. Though this one isn’t either, things are getting better.
The above graphic was made during the 2019 election. It shows the gap in voter turnout between men and women falling and that in some states, women vote at higher rates than men. These recent additions may also be a way of demonstrating to women that they have a place in the BJP and something that they remember when they vote.
The additional attention on advanced degrees is also fairly interesting. About 4 years ago, the Prime Minister made a comment about how India needed hard work and not Harvard. However, the photographs of the new cabinet inductees on the BJP Twitter Account are careful to point out there are ‘13 lawyers, 6 doctors, 5 engineers, 7 civil servants, 7 PhDs, and 7 MBAs’ which suggests a shift in thinking around educational credentials.
The idea of more recent party entrants is primarily about Jyotiraditya Scindia (although Narayan Rane also left the INC for the BJP and was made a minister as well). Scindia left the Congress Party last year and it was a big deal. He’s the titular head of one of India’s royal families and his father, Madhavrao Scindia, was a very well known Congressman in his day.
Unlike his father, the younger Scindia started his career in the Congress Party and was made a minister during the Manmohan Singh government. He was able to hang on to his seat in the 2014 election but he lost his election in the Modi wave of 2019. He stayed in the party until last year - he felt he wasn’t getting enough respect and chose to join the BJP. This resulted in the BJP coming back to power in Madhya Pradesh - the assembly members who were loyal to Scindia jumped ship with him. In return Scindia was promised a parliamentary seat and cabinet position (Minister of Civil Aviation) - both boxes which have since been checked.
However, this kind of reward can also engender resentment. In West Bengal for instance, there was reporting that BJP workers were upset when the turncoats against the ruling government were given tickets to run in the election a few months ago. Rewarding turncoats can get you more of them but it can also infuriate the people already on your side which is why it’s important to be careful with how often you do it.
Next up is age. Some of the people dropped from the cabinet were a bit on the older side and some of the new inductees are on the younger side - Scindia for instance turned 50 on January 1st. This has significant political benefits for the BJP. For one, it represents a chance to create a future governing class that is ready to step in on day one. No politicians lead forever and given that the unofficial retirement age of BJP leaders is 75, there could be openings in important jobs in the years to come that will need to be filled. Additionally, it helps set up a starker contrast to the Indian National Congress. The BJP bringing in fresh faces looks significantly better when compared to a party that continues to offer the same family despite firm rejections by the electorate.
The last point worth noting is regional diversity. The BJP has been traditionally tagged as a party of the Hindu Heartland and central/central-north India but the new cabinet features significant geographic diversity.
The shuffle saw a significant degree of success for Northeast Indian politicians which to an extent makes sense. The BJP currently runs 8 out of 8 states and union territories in the northeast after the elections earlier this year and the people responsible are now being rewarded.
Sarbananda Sonowal who served as Chief Minister of Assam from 2016-2021 was made Minister of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways and Kiren Rijiju of Arunachal Pradesh was made Minister of Law and Justice. These ministers (as well as their colleagues from the region) can also be seen as proof that the region is no longer being ignored by the central government. In turn, that could prove valuable come election season.
Finally, some of the new ministers are from regions with upcoming elections - for instance, Uttar Pradesh which will be heading to the polls next year sent seven new appointments into the cabinet. Other states with upcoming elections are seeing something similar though UP is seeing more because it looks like it’ll be a big battle and because people think it will reveal what’s coming in 2024.
All of this aside, the real determinant of what and how much this new cabinet can do is what Modi wants. Between the 1990s and 2014, India had a series of coalition governments with no one superstar leader akin to Nehru or Indira or Modi. The eras that feature these leaders tend to have much more control imposed on ministries through the Prime Minister’s Office. Neither Nehru or Indira could credibly be described as hands off and likewise for Modi.
In the coalition times, the Prime Minister needed the support of other parties but in the times where the government’s party provides the majority, this kind of leeway is rare. Modi has ministers but he generally sets the agenda himself and is unlikely to change his operation. The party needs him and he knows it and this is clear in how he runs his government and this probably won’t change even with this new cabinet.
That’s a wrap for the week - thanks for reading. I hope this was informative and enjoyable and would appreciate it if you could share it with a friend or colleague.
If you’ve got any questions or feedback or want me to cover something, please email me at email@example.com or reach out to me on Twitter @AnikVJoshi and I’ll do my best to respond.
Other things to read
A few days ago, my friend Vishal Ganesan had a really interesting post on his Hindoo History substack about Claudius Buchanan and his impact on people’s conceptions of Hindus. I highly recommend the piece and the substack as a whole. You can find him on Twitter @vjgtweets, you can find his newsletter on Twitter @hindoohistory, and you can also find it on Instagram at the same username.
Another good friend of mine, Aman Thakker, had a really interesting take about the Prime Minister’s meeting with political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir. Again, I highly recommend the piece and his newsletter (Indialogue) as a whole. You can find him on Twitter @amanthakker.
On a more somber note, Salil Tripathi wrote a piece about the custodial death of Fr. Stan Swamy that I found very moving. You can find him on Twitter @saliltripathi.