Millennium Post

Politics of cynicism takes centre stage

All those who expected Prime minister Narendra Modi to deliver on his election-campaign promise of cleaning up Indian politics of money power and crime, making a break with short-term caste-and-community calculations, and placing merit above personal loyalty, would be sorely disappointed at his cabinet reshuffle, including the induction of 21 new ministers.

The composition of his team also reflects a great paucity of talent in the Bharatiya Janata Party and its National Democratic Alliance, and doesn’t augur well for responsible governance. For starters, 92 per cent of the members of the expanded council of ministers are crorepatis, with average assets of Rs 14 crores, or double those of United Progressive Alliance ministers. Their wealth is matched by their criminality. Almost one-third of the ministers have criminal charges pending against them; 17 per cent have serious cases, including rape, attempt to murder, and rioting.

Eight of the 21 newly inducted ministers face criminal charges, according the Association for Democratic Reforms. The list is topped by minister of state for human resource development (of all portfolios!) Ramshankar Katheria, indicted in 21 cases, including attempt to murder, provoking communal disharmony, forgery and intimidation. He’s followed by Hansraj Ahir, with 11 cases, including assault and criminal intimidation, and yet others, including Giriraj Singh, connected with the Ranvir Sena, a Bhumihar militia in Bihar responsible for several Dalit massacres.

The cruelest irony here is the media-planted story that Mr Ahir was rewarded by Mr Modi for being an exemplary ‘whistle-blower’ in the coal scam- although he has an unflattering reputation as regards corruption and was reportedly acting on behalf of and fed the relevant information by one of Maharashtra’s most predatory business groups, with interests in coal and power generation. He is also close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and represents Chandrapur, from where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat comes.

Like all routine unimaginative reshuffles, the new cabinet changes accommodate certain hitherto-excluded caste and regional interests- through the induction of J P Nadda from Himachal Pradesh, Y S Chowdary from Andhra Pradesh, Bandaru Dattatreya from Telangana and singer Babul Supriyo from West Bengal. Even so, the states that defied the Modi wave, like Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, remain under-represented. So does the South generally, barring Karnataka.

Mr Modi has rewarded communities like the Jats, as the inclusion of Chaudhary Birender Singh (Haryana) and Sanwar Lal Jat (Rajasthan) suggests. This is partly meant to assuage the Jat sentiment in Haryana, where a non-Jat has been made chief minister. By inducting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathod, a Rajput from Rajasthan, he has underscored the Jat-Rajput consolidation that the BJP achieved there in the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

Even more significant is the induction of three new ministers from different castes in Bihar, where elections are due next year: Rajiv Pratap Rudy (a Thakur), Giriraj Singh (a Bhumihar) and Ram Kirpal Yadav (meant as a counter to Mr Laloo Prasad’s Yadav base). The BJP, which confronts a formidable grand alliance between the Janata Dal(United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, is already preparing the ground by fomenting anti-Muslim violence in Bihar, which has seen 170 communal incidents since June 2013, when the JD(U) parted ways with the BJP.

In Uttar Pradesh, Mr Modi has inducted a Dalit (Mr Katheria) and a Nishad OBC leader (Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti)- evidently to combat the appeal of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, with an eye on the state elections in 2017.

However, over and above these caste calculations stands the visibility of the RSS stamp in the choice of Messsrs Manohar Parrikar, Nadda, Dattratreya and Ahir, and Dr Mohan Singh and Ms Jyoti, all RSS loyalists, whose induction was recommended by Sangh leaders. Nor has Mr Modi been averse to the ‘dynasty factor’, as evidenced by the inclusion of Jayant Sinha, a first-time MP and former senior minister Yashwant Sinha’s son.

Much has been made of the merit and administrative competence of Mr Parrikar and former Shiv Sainik, Suresh Prabhu, who have been given the defence and railways portfolios. Mr Parrikar’s none-too-distinguished administrative experience is limited to tiny Goa, where he’s known for his impatient, abrasive style. But he’s a staunch Modi loyalist. Besides, Goa is where Mr Modi got a reprieve from BJP leaders from being sacked after the Gujarat carnage in 2002, and where he was anointed the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013.

Mr Parrikar never managed to combat widespread corruption or break the nexus between Goa’s politics and the iron-ore mafia. Following the MB Shah report, he shut down iron-ore mining (for three months, he first announced), plunging the state’s economy into a grave crisis, which affected a fifth of its population. The closure became prolonged, but he lost numerous opportunities to turn the economy around. On what basis he’s considered fit to handle a complex portfolio like defence, remains a mystery.

As for Mr Prabhu, he cleared a number of ecologically unsound or questionable projects as environment minister. His record was considerably inferior to, say, Mr Jairam Ramesh’s. But he has been cultivating Mr Modi and was named his sherpa for the G-20 summit and even considered as someone who could head the now-to-be-reconstituted Planning Commission.

Even more questionable is Mr Nadda’s appointment as the health minister in place of Dr Harsh Vardhan. The two differed over the transfer of AIIMS Central Vigilance Officer Sanjeev Chaturvedi who had demanded a CBI inquiry into various scams. Eventually, Mr Nadda prevailed and the CVO was transferred. The Aam Aadmi Party is right to protest against Mr Nadda’s appointment which, it says, will lead to more corruption in AIIMS and higher costs for patients.

The induction of YS Chowdary into the science and technology ministry further discredits the government. Mr Chowdary, with declared assets of Rs 190 crores, is a major loan defaulter and owes Rs 317 crores to the Central Bank of India. Similarly, Mr Giriraj Singh stands accused of hugely undervaluing his wealth. He reported a theft of Rs 50,000 from his Patna home, but the police recovered Rs 1.25 crores in cash! He also faces a charge of violating the election law.

Minister of state Nihalchand Meghwal, who faces a rape charge in Rajasthan, and has been declared ‘missing’ by the state police despite numerous public appearances, failed to show up in court for the second time. But he was not dropped from the ministry- only shifted from the chemicals and fertilisers to the panchayati raj portfolio.

The new council of ministers inspires no hope- more so because Mr Modi’s ultra-authoritarian style is likely to prevent even the more competent ministers from working with the functional autonomy they need. Mr Modi has been meeting secretaries directly and disrupting the chain of command under which they normally report to their respective ministers.

All decisions, including middle-level appointments of officials, are concentrated in the prime minister’s office. The diktat, that no personal staff serving under UPA ministers can be employed under NDA ministers is polarising the bureaucracy along party lines.

What of Maharashtra, India’s second largest state, where the BJP won a motion of confidence in a controversial voice-vote despite lacking a majority? It could have won a proper division-based vote with the Nationalist Congress’ support, but didn’t want to be seen associating with that highly tainted, duplicitous party, with which it however colludes clandestinely.

The Shiv Sena is caught in a terrible bind after botching up its seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP. It’s hard to say how the Sena-BJP standoff will end. But it’s clear that the BJP is playing a deeply devious game under chief minister and RSS loyalist Devendra Fadnavis, whose ascent represents retrogression. He is the first Brahmin to head the state after the Sena’s Manohar Joshi, himself ‘remote-controlled’ by former supremo Bal Thackeray, as the latter frequently boasted.

Mr Fadnavis will find it extremely difficult to clean up Maharashtra, with its countless scams, ranging from irrigation to highways, and housing to sugar cooperatives. His suave style and ‘clean’ reputation notwithstanding, Mr Fadnavis is implicated in numerous ways with the Sancheti group of Nagpur. He used the multi-crore irrigation scam to the hilt against the Congress-NCP government, but didn’t mention the Sancheti link in his deposition before the committee that investigated it. He’s likely to face questions on this omission and on the Adarsh society scam, in which the Sanchetis are named too. He will find it difficult to handle this. IPA
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