Monday, 30th October 2017

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JNU gifts defence minister

Nirmala biggest gainer in shuffle shorn of surprises but loaded with message to the old guard

By J.P. Yadav
  • Published 4.09.17
Modi at the swearing-in. (AP) 

New Delhi, Sept. 3: Narendra Modi today handed the defence minister's job to JNU alumna Nirmala Sitharaman, the second woman in the post after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, marking the only big surprise in a ministry shuffle whose humdrumness belied the preceding hype.

Although the rejig spared Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari - the top four ministers after Modi and part of the party old guard - the growing dominance of the younger generation of Modi-Shah picks was evident.

The optics at the swearing-in reflected just how vulnerable the veterans were despite being untouched for now - it was party president Amit Shah sitting next to the Prime Minister despite home minister Rajnath being officially the number two in the government.

Sitharaman, a Modi-Shah favourite who relieves finance minister Jaitley of the additional charge of defence, will now rub shoulders with seniors Rajnath, Jaitley and Sushma in the government's elite club, the cabinet committee on security.

Four junior ministers have been raised to cabinet rank and nine new faces inducted in the Modi government's third shuffle, believed to be the last significant one before the 2019 general election.

Today's exercise mirrored the dominance of the north - the BJP's stronghold - and an effort to reach out to the south, where the party is keen to expand.

Apart from Sitharaman, the other "high-performing" junior ministers promoted to cabinet rank are Piyush Goyal, Dharmendra Pradhan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Goyal replaces Suresh Prabhu as railway minister while also holding coal. Prabhu, who had offered his resignation after the recent spurt in train accidents, becomes commerce minister.

Pradhan, who already held the petroleum and natural gas portfolio, takes over skill development and entrepreneurship from Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who has been dropped. Naqvi, the only Muslim in the cabinet, retains the minority affairs ministry.

"Thank you very much Hon'ble PM for entrusting this greater responsibilities to us. We will keep working to realise your vision of #NewIndia," Pradhan tweeted.

But the highlight of the shuffle was Sitharaman's rise from a low-profile, southern, English-speaking spokesperson to holder of a heavyweight ministry. She attributed it to "cosmic grace".

"Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership... and if given such a responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there. Otherwise, it is impossible," she told reporters.

Sangh mouthpiece Organiser flagged Sitharaman's background as a former economics student at JNU, an institution now being targeted by the parivar as a den of Left and liberal politics.

"The same JNU that came to the news coz of 'Bharat tere tukade honge' has given Bharat a new Defence Minister @nsitharaman ji," tweeted Organiser editor Prafulla Ketkar.

Party sources pointed to one obvious consequence of the job going to the newbie Sitharaman: the Prime Minister's Office can now directly run the defence ministry without bothering about stepping on toes.

Politically, Sitharaman's elevation is meant to compensate for the departure of Venkaiah Naidu, the party's tallest leader from the south, who has become Vice-President.

Sources said the appointments of Alphons Kannanthanam, a former IAS officer from Kerala, and Karnataka MP Anantkumar Hegde as junior ministers too were attempts to court the southern electorate.

Naqvi's promotion and the induction of Kannanthanam and Hardeep Singh Puri, both former bureaucrats, are being seen as an effort to present an "inclusive face" by accommodating religious minorities.

The dominance of the cow belt, from where the BJP derives its strength, remains intact. Uttar Pradesh, which already had several ministers including Modi (who is MP from Varanasi) and Rajnath, has got two more and so has Bihar.

Shiv Pratap Shukla, a Brahmin, and Satya Pal Singh, a Jat and a former policeman, have been recruited as junior ministers from the heartland. From Bihar, the two entrants are former home secretary R.K. Singh, a Rajput, and the Brahmin Ashwini Kumar Choubey.

Their arrivals suggest that the BJP, for all its recent overtures to Dalits and backward castes, is not ready to risk its core upper caste votes in the Hindi belt. The party was apparently keen to balance the caste books after the appointment of Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as President.