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Cabinet choice: new faces, old bottle

New Delhi, May 27: Narendra Modi’s distribution of portfolios among Union ministers suggests he hasn’t departed from convention, choosing instead to assign some ministries in a stereotypical style, sections of political scientists have said.

In keeping with conventions followed by previous governments, Modi has appointed a Muslim, Najma Heptulla, as minority affairs minister; a tribal, Jual Oram, as tribal affairs minister; a member of the Scheduled Castes, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, as social justice and empowerment minister, and Maneka Gandhi as minister for women and child development.

“If one is looking ahead towards modern governance, representation based on caste, class and gender should not be the norm,” said Manjeet Chaturvedi, a professor at Banaras Hindu University.

“This only reinforces stereotypes. Successive governments have defended this trend, saying people from a particular community can address the issues of that community better, (but) such ministers may not be able to maintain a sense of objectivity,” Chaturvedi added.

Aphun Kamei, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, said stereotyped allocations kept such leaders out of other ministries. “They get labelled and are assigned ministries only according to their caste or religious identities. If there are two tribal leaders among the winning candidates, at least one is assigned the tribal affairs ministry. No thought is given to the capabilities of the person concerned.”

Chaturvedi believes governments should practise “de class” — a theory propagated by Italian Marxist theoretician and politician Antonio Gramsci — under which an individual does not represent any class, caste or community identities.

The four ministries were carved out between 1998 and 2006 and have been used over the years to accommodate caste, religion and class concerns while allocating portfolios.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1999-2004 cabinet had Oram, a tribal leader from Odisha, as tribal affairs minister. A Dalit leader from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Satyanarayan Jatiya, was Vajpayee’s minister for social justice and empowerment.

The tradition was followed by the UPA government that succeeded the NDA regime. While Abdul Rehman Antulay, from Maharashtra, was the minority affairs minister, Meira Kumar, a lawyer and former diplomat, was assigned the social justice ministry because of her credentials as the Dalit face of the Congress.

Renuka Chowdhury, a Rajya Sabha MP, was the minister of state for women and child development, and Rameshwar Oraon, MP from Lohardaga in Jharkhand, was the tribal affairs minister.

The trend continued during the tenure of UPA II. Senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid was the minority affairs minister followed by K. Rehman Khan. Kumari Selja, a Dalit leader from Haryana, was the minister for social justice. Tribal leader Kishore Chandra Deo from Andhra Pradesh was the tribal affairs minister and Krishna Tirath, an MP from Delhi, was the minister for women and child development.

“This is nothing new. Political parties assign such roles to ensure that community members don’t raise voices against government policies,” said Yagati Chinna Rao, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“It is easy for a government to ignore the demands of a community if it is aided by a minister representing the community,” he said.