Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday elevated Nirmala Sitharaman as India’s first full-fledged woman defence minister, promoted three other high performing ministers to cabinet rank and inducted former top bureaucrats in a ministerial reshuffle 20 months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
Nine new union ministers, including four former top bureaucrats, also took oath today, joining Modi’s ministerial council in a mega cabinet rejig seen as part of a strategy to accelerate reforms and improve governance.
The cherry-picked set of former civil servants and Rajya Sabha MPs, as also promotions to high performing ministers, demonstrated the Prime Minister’s intent to walk the talk on maximum governance, keeping a sharp eye on political acumen to balance efficient administration with poll winnability.
All four, including Sitharaman who was the commerce and industry minister, had been ministers of state with independent charge. Goyal, who was the minister for power, renewable energy and coal, will replace Suresh Prabhu as the rail minister.
Prabhu, a former chartered accountant who resigned as rail minister in wake of a spate of recent train accidents, will be the commerce and industry minister replacing Sitharaman.
Sitharaman, who was once a junior finance minister under Arun Jaitley, will take assume charge as defence minister from Jaitley, who was also holding both the finance and defence portfolios. Jaitley has been holding charge of the defence ministry since Manohar Parrikar was sent to Goa as chief minister earlier this year.
Former IFS officer and highly decorated diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri will assume charge as minister of state (independent charge) of the ministry of housing and urban affairs, a portfolio that has held by Venkaiah Naidu before he got elected as country’s Vice President last month.
Former IAS officer and ex-Delhi Development Authority (DDA) commissioner KJ Alphons is the minister of state (independent charge) for Tourism.
Former union home secretary RK Singh is the new minister of state (independent) charge for power and renewable energy, replacing Goyal, who will retain the coal portfolio along with railways.
Former Mumbai police chief Satya Pal Singh has been appointed as a minister of state for human resource development. He will also be junior minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.
Bihar MP Ashwini Kumar Choubey, MP from Uttar Pradesh Shiv Pratap Shukla, MP from Madhya Pradesh Virendra Kumar, MP from Karnataka Ananthkumar Hegde and MP from Rajasthan Gajendra Singh Shekhawat are the other new ministerial joinees in the Modi government.
The cabinet reshuffle has been guided by the “4P” principle: “passion, proficiency, professional and political acumen”, aimed at delivering on Modi’s vision of “New India” by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence—an idea he had first flagged in March in an address to party workers at the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi.
Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari has been given additional charge of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, taking charge from Uma Bharti who will now handle drinking water and sanitation.
Jaitley will have two new junior ministers in finance— Radhakrishnan P and Shiv Pratap Shukla—replacing Santosh Gangwar and Arjun Ram Meghwal. While Gangwar will be the new minister of state (independent charge) for labour, Meghwal will be the new junior minister for Parliamentary Affairs as also Water Resources.
The promotions of Sitharaman, Pradhan, Goyal and Naqvi are seen as a reward for their performance across key ministries over the last three years, piloting critical reforms and policy intiatives in an uncertain social and economic environment.
Pradhan, barely months into office, shepherded the deregulation of diesel prices, making these linked to global crude oil price movements. Market-determined diesel prices free of administrative control has helped cut subsidies on petroleum products. This has also helped offset the shocks when global crude prices shoot up. Freeing diesel prices from state-control has been one of the most difficult reforms India’s complex political economy.
Pradhan, who will also now hold the additional portfolio of skills development and entrepreneurship, also successfully oversaw one of Modi's pet schemes—“Give it Up” plan—urging people to forego subsidised cooking gas or LPG voluntarily.
Goyal oversaw the coal auction policy to give mining licences to private companies through competitive bidding, replacing the earlier controversial and scam-tainted policy of allotting coal blocks based on the recommendations of a bureaucrats’ panel, which was long overdue.
His role in the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) to turnaround the highly indebted state power distribution companies, has also been hailed by analysts. The scheme has resulted in efficient and healthy power distributors able to purchase more power from generators, while keeping consumer’s power bills to the minimum.
As commerce and industry minister Sitharaman oversaw the overhaul of foreign direct investment (FDI) norms for several sectors including defence, food products, aviation and retail, in a plucky drive to push reforms and growth.
The government has lifted overseas investment ceilings for civil aviation, defence, pharmaceuticals, multi-brand food retail and eased so-called restrictive conditions for single brand retail. Sitharaman also piloted the policy to allow upto 100 percent FDI in domestic airlines and new airports, a move that will foreign companies to fully-own Indian domestic carriers and `greenfield’ airports and upto 74 percent in existing airports. In defence, upto 100 percent FDI has now been allowed without the mandatory condition of bringing in “state-of-the-art” technology by the foreign partners.
The elevation of Naqvi, BJP’s most prominent Muslim face, comes at a time when the Supreme Court, in a recent landmark ruling, has struck down instant triple talaq as unconstitutional.
Naqvi, the only Muslim face in the union cabinet, has been a prominent voice in Parliament, defending government policies, as well as demonstrating deft floor management skills in managing relations with the Opposition, particularly when the government was snowed under a barrage of criticism for stoking religious polarisation amid incidents of fringe elements accused of lynching people for allegedly transporting cows.
Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has been given independent charge as a minister of state for Sports Youth affairs. He also retains his position as a junior Information and Broadcasting minister. Former sports minister Vijay Goel have been moved to Parliamentary affairs as a minister of state.