The months of May and June are generally the hottest in North India, especially Delhi, with hot and dusty winds, colloquially called loo, blistering the city. This year, apart from the blistering heat, the political temperature also rose even as the 'political loo' had barely settled after the resounding victory for the BJP led by Narendra Modi. On my part, I was very inquisitive to know how Modi would govern the country and who all would be a part of his cabinet. There was also an interest in knowing how Modi would stabilise India's fluctuating economy, tackle the threats to our internal and external security, shape our foreign policy and deliver development to the remotest corners of India. For resolving all these and a whole lot of other problems India faces, it is important that Modi has a team of ministers who are capable, efficient, honest and accountable to the people of India and know how to work as a team so essential for a parliamentary form of government like ours.
In a country as diverse as India, with competing claims based on caste, religion, farm and industrial groups, rich and poor, old and young, a fine balancing act, akin to a trapeze artist, has to be undertaken during cabinet formation. The PM also has to face the challenge of accommodating various demands and interests of the different states and regions and make sure that all communities in India are adequately represented.
Could the new PM get a team and change the dictum of Indian politics?
Traditionally the portfolios of Home (also called Interior in many countries), Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defence are the most powerful and hence most coveted. However, to me, equally important were the portfolios of HRD, Rural Development, Women's issues and Environment. Could the new PM, get a team of Ministers who would be both young and experienced, mature and dynamic, efficient and honest, qualities which at time seem to be at odds with each other? Could he change the dictum of Indian politics that 'old is gold' so as to be in sync with the 100 million first time voters who had cast their votes in favour of hope and development? Could he deliver on his promise of 'minimum government, maximum governance'? Would he bow to the wishes of the RSS as it is believed that it runs the BJP by remote control?
The mystery was finally unravelled on May 26th at the grand swearing in ceremony which took place at the imposing President palace. The cabinet had the distinctive stamp of the new PM. The old guard of LK Advani and MM Joshi, well into their 80ies and who had opposed the rise of Modi in the party, were sidelined. Rajnath Singh, the BJP president and a former Chief Minister of the largest state of Uttar Pradesh, who played a vital role in making Modi the PM candidate, was made the Home Minister, regarded as number 2 in the pecking order. The Finance portfolio, the pivot to Modi's agenda of growth and development, was given to Arun Jaitley, a distinguished lawyer, a former law minister and a firm supporter of Modi. Jaitley was also given the Defence portfolio, probably as a stop gap arrangement, even though he had lost the elections. India's economy does have a potential to rise under the leadership of Modi and Arun Jaitely. The external affairs portfolio was given to Ms. Sushma Swaraj, a former CM of Delhi, the leader of opposition in Lok Sabha (lower house) from 2009 to 2014 and the women's face of the party since long, even though she was seen to be from the anti-Modi camp.
Criticism for the youngest Cabinet minister
There was also a lot of criticism at making Smriti Irani the Human Resource Development minister as according to critics she was not even a graduate and at 38 was the youngest Cabinet minister. Is this a fair criticism? Is it imperative that the HRD minister should be educationally well qualified? By the same logic, should the Civil Aviation minister be a pilot and the Defence minister have a military background. Ms Irani has responded to her critics to judge her by her work and not her qualifications.
To remove bottlenecks and bring synergy between related ministries, Narendra Modi has also clubbed various ministries which earlier had separate ministers. Hence, power, coal and renewable energy have been brought together and given to a single minister. Similarly, surface transport, shipping and highways were clubbed as a single ministry. Hopefully, these steps will result in faster and coordinated decision making. Modi also made a significant move in the functioning of the Cabinet by removing all 'Empowered Group of Ministers' and 'Group of Ministers'. These ministerial groups had been formed with the stated objective of resolving inter-ministerial disputes but had only resulted in delays and policy paralysis. One can hope that disputes between various ministries are now resolved directly and decisively by the PM.
A positive signal towards Pakistan
The new PM, considered bereft of foreign policy experience, sent a positive signal by inviting all SAARC (a south Asian grouping) leaders to the swearing in ceremony. The million dollar question was whether the Pakistan premier would attend, as the two countries have not had the best of relations and hawks on both sides keep the pitch at a crescendo. After much 'will he, won't he', the Pak PM did come giving rise to hope of better relations between the two countries. Hopefully the economic perspective of Sharif and Modi can change the destiny and future of the India and Pakistan. My generation of Indians, untouched by the trauma of partition, would rather see the two countries march hand in hand and be good neighbours than continue to be at loggerheads with each other. This will be Modi's foremost foreign policy challenge.
As I saw the grand ceremony on TV, I marvelled at the smooth transition of power. The viciousness and bile of the election campaign had bowed to the will of the people. The victors and the vanquished, who just days ago were trading accusations and counter accusations, were shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. I thought this was a contribution of the framers of our constitution and a legion of leaders who had built a strong democratic foundation. It is for the new government to strengthen and build the edifice.
Read also Avani's first article Ruminations of a First Time Voter, published June 4th, 2014.