Modi’s talent pool is shallow, but at least Jaitley can be replaced with Raghuram Rajan

Limited by choice.
Limited by choice.
Image: Reuters/Prakash Singh
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There’s a rumour swirling around in Delhi’s political circles that a cabinet reshuffle is on the cards. Prime minister Narendra Modi, it is said, wants to deliver on his election promise of better governance and is therefore searching for new faces. But the truth is, he doesn’t have much to pick from.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its partners in the National Democratic Alliance have acute talent deficit and their bench strength doesn’t extend very much beyond what is seen in the cabinet now. The deficit is manifested in the underperformance and underachievement of the finance and commerce ministries, which are crying out for a change. Here then is an appraisal of Modi’s cabinet colleagues and a useful guide to help the prime minister through the reshuffle.

Arun Jaitley has shown no ability to understand the economy and what needs fixing. He is more fixated on fixing people and placing stories. Even his colleagues are not exempt from his proclivities. Lawyering is very different from redrawing the nation’s economic architecture, and a penchant for political gossip does not indicate political sagacity. Since he is too high profile now and too close to Modi to be dumped, Jaitley should be given the charge of the ministry of external affairs, so that he can be kept under the shadow of the prime minister’s office and his inactivity and inabilities covered up.

Nirmala Sitharaman, who was the BJP spokesperson during the run-up to the general election, has a junior minister’s position and an economically critical portfolio. During her tenure as the minister of commerce and industry, foreign trade figures—imports and exports—have gone southward. True, there is a worldwide slowdown, but that’s when you need to fire on all cylinders. She has shown no talent or temperament for the job.

Sushma Swaraj is a complete misfit at the ministry of external affairs. She does not have a worldview or knowledge of world affairs. Loquaciousness, or oratorical sophistication, is not knowledge. Yet, she has abilities and seniority. She is not divisive and can get a team to work. She is also mature enough to ward off cranks like Hindutva activist Dinanath Batra. I think Swaraj would be well utilised in the ministry of human resource development, where the incumbent is proving woefully inadequate.

Smriti Irani, meanwhile, could be sent to the ministry of information and broadcasting, where her gift of the gab, sense of the news and topicality could be put to better use than in the ministry of human resource development.

Nitin Gadkari has the talent and ability to get things done and is demonstrating it in his present charge at the minister of road transport and highways. This is a vital area and he is best left alone at it.

Rajnath Singh has been a bit of a flapjaw without the gravitas needed for the home ministry. That said, home is a toothless ministry. There are few charges left with it beyond shuffling around paramilitary units. Besides, the ministry of personnel is with the prime minister, and the prime minister’s office dominates internal security. So leaving Singh to himself in a toothless ministry will be a safe bet—the BJP heavyweight can do little damage there.

Piyush Goyal has done well in the power ministry. He should not be moved around. Also, since Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for finance, has fared well, he could be sent to the ministry of commerce to pull up foreign trade by its bootstraps. And Nirmala Sitharaman could be moved to the ministry of human resource development to work with Swaraj.

Manohar Parrikar may not be the ideal defence minister, but he shines in comparison with his predecessor AK Anthony. Besides who can replace him?

The prime minister does not have much in-house choice for the finance ministry. These are times for a person who can build multi-party consensus. I would commend Raghuram Rajan who has the ability, imagination and goodwill, here and abroad, to turn the Indian economy around.

Additionally, what Modi can do is get rid of a few contentious and querulous fellows. For instance, culture minister Mahesh Sharma, and Giriraj Kishore, minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises. He should also dump Uma Bharti and hand over the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation to Nitin Gadkari.

I feel sorry for Modi. He doesn’t have much of a talent pool to choose from within the BJP or the coalition. Alas, he’ll have to assemble a team from the slim pickings.

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