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What to watch for in PM Modi’s Cabinet expansion and reshuffle

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-09-2017 Gyan Varma

The long awaited expansion and reshuffle of the union council of ministers is finally here. The oath will be administered by Ramnath Kovind, the newly anointed president of India in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The third such reshuffle undertaken in as many years is likely to be the last before the 17th Lok Sabha election due in the first half of 2019.

So how does one try and make sense of the rejig of the union cabinet. Here is a cheat sheet:

First, the most obvious, who is in and who is out. The former has been made clear. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has opted to address the long apparent problem of lack of bench strength within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), by preferring professionals over politicians. The incoming team is likely to include a clutch of former bureaucrats like home secretary Raj Kumar Singh, Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh, Indian Foreign Service officer Hardeep Puri and Delhi Development Authority commissioner Alphons Kannanthanam.

Now all eyes will be on who will be dropped. The spate of resignations in the run-up to the formation of the Union cabinet suggest that a short-list is already in place.

Second, how will the new look cabinet reflect the priorities before the government in the remaining part of its tenure. While the incoming list suggests that PM Modi is looking to give heft to key ministries, a lot will also depend on how he deploys members he retains from his original team.

Some of the priorities are obvious. Recent macroeconomic data reveals that while the economy has improved from 2014, it is still struggling with the problem of reviving investment—the bad debt problem, legacy problem of a creaking infrastructure and inability to break the shackles of red tape are some constraints in the ecosystem Indian business has voiced. In addition the squeeze on agriculture has begun to manifest in a demand problem. This will sooner or later start manifesting in a jobs crisis—which will be a political disaster in the run-up to 2019.

Add to this list the obvious strategic priority: external threats. The recent episode at Doklam in Bhutan involving an increasingly belligerent China suggests that the paradigm of India’s national security is undergoing a makeover and the country’s Eastern frontier is now as vulnerable to threats as the West.

Third, how will the choice and portfolio allocation of the ministers reflect the short-term political priority of the BJP: maintain its winning spree in the upcoming elections to six states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat—where it is the incumbent—and Karnataka.

Fourth, and finally, it will be interesting to glean clues on NDA’s designs to expand its electoral footprint from the composition of the cabinet. Most recently it added Bihar after Janata Dal United chief Nitish Kumar dumped his ally Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and tied-up afresh with the BJP; a similar inorganic expansion was witnessed in some states in the North East of India. Greater the NDA presence in government across the country, better it is for them in the electoral showdown in 2019.

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