The Modi cabinet reshuffle occupied Indian media’s broadcast space for the whole of last week. While several attributed the recent reshuffle to a decisive step, some called it tokenism to undo Modi Government’s past fiascos. The recent reshuffle goes to show that governments with a significant majority in the Parliament have it easier. The same has been evident throughout PM Modi’s two terms. Jaibatruka Mohanta analysis the pattern of cabinet reshuffles in India in the light of the recent one.
By Jaibatruka Mohanta, a fourth-year student of B.L.S L.L.B at VKMs Pravin Gandhi College of Law, University of Mumbai. Jai is also a member of the Lawctopus Writers Club.
India is a parliamentary democratic republic, which means that the President is the head of the Indian state, and the Prime Minister leads the government. The people of India directly elect the representatives to the lower house of the Indian Parliament. But who takes charge of the ministries that govern India is decided by the Prime Minister or party politics, especially in the case of a coalition government.
Cabinet reshuffles are not new, but they tend to cause some stir among political analysts and media each time. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, for instance, was infamous for his cabinet shuffles. He reshuffled his council of ministers seventeen times in three years, which included seven significant shake-ups. When Gandhi reshuffled his cabinet for the fourth time, the Statesman had commented, ‘Back to the Musical Chairs’.
The recent cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Narendra Modi steered was a sight of confusion. The resignation of the Bhartiya Janata Parties’ top leaders left many under shock.
About fifteen fresh cabinet ministers and twenty-eight ministers of state took charge of various portfolios at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 7, 2021.
While Articles 74 and 75 of the Constitution of India states the appointment of the Council of Ministers, it’s silent about reshuffles. In fact, Article 75(1) mandates the President of India to appoint ministers with the advice of the Prime Minister. And Article 75(3) furthers:
‘The Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the President‘.
However, far from ‘the pleasure of the President’, most of these decisions are taken by the PM or the party at the helm.
Thus, to make sense of the pattern and frequency of cabinet reshuffles in India, this article will first understand the Modi cabinet reshuffle 2021. Second, it will compare the terms of three different Prime Ministers and detail the similarities between specific cabinet reshuffles from the past and present. Third, it will reflect on the impact of the present cabinet reshuffle on the future. In the end, the article will draw an analogy of a crucial slogan to the current government’s rise and the scenario at present.
Understanding the Modi Cabinet Reshuffle
Twelve Council of Ministers from the Prime Minister’s cabinet had tendered their resignation to President Ram Nath Kovind on July 7, 2021.
Among these twelve, former Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan handed his resignation before cabinet expansion on Wednesday. There isn’t any clear reasoning from the Prime Minister Office (PMO) regarding any resignation. However, many speculate that his resignation follows after the massive breakdown of the healthcare system during the second wave. After a slew of deaths during the Covid pandemic, many have questioned the mismanagement by the health ministry. Dr J.A. Jayal, President of the Indian Medical Association, had indicated the same. He remarked,
“As the health minister of this country, he should have led from the front, especially when dealing with safety concerns of people from the medical fraternity ……. The PM himself had to intervene and speak to doctors at least twice….“
Union Minister For Law & Justice, Communications, And Electronics Ravi Shankar Prasad had also stepped down, and to many, this came as a big blow.
After the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 came in, the IT Ministry and several social media platforms were at loggerheads with each other.
Moreover, following the clash between Twitter and the government and the former’s opposition to the new IT Rules further aggravated resentment against Ravi Shankar Prasad. Before this, the toolkit fiasco during the farmer’s protest and Prasad’s aggressive stand on the same wasn’t well-received as well.
Although one cannot single-handily blame union ministers, they did fall short of managing crisis.
In the meantime, Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas and Minister of Steel, took charge as the Minister of Education and skill development.
Pradhan was part of the BJP’s youth wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and he has been part of the party cadre for years. However, it’s unclear whether he is the right fit for the education ministry, given that he has had no prior experience with anything remotely in the same field.
Amidst a cabinet reshuffle, there was also a cabinet expansion with newer portfolios. For instance, Amit Shah took additional charge of a newly-created Ministry of Cooperation. Following his swearing-in, the cabinet secretariat said,
“this ministry will provide a separate administrative, legal and policy framework for strengthening the cooperative movement in the country. It will help deepen cooperatives as a true people-based movement reaching up to the grassroots.”
Cabinet Reshuffle: A Pattern?
Various Prime Ministers have reshuffled their cabinet many times for multiple reasons. So, let us look at a few reshuffles made during three different PMs and their terms. The table below will focus on three Indian prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.
|Rajiv Gandhi||Atal Bihari Vajpayee||Narendra Modi|
|1||▪ Gandhi served as India’s sixth Prime Minister.|
▪ He served approximately five years, from October 31, 1984, to December 2, 1989.
|▪ Vajpayee served as India’s tenth Prime Minister.|
▪ He served approximately six years in two different terms, from May 16, 1996, to June 1, 1966, and from March 19, 1998, to May 22, 2004.
|▪ Modi is serving as India’s fourteenth Prime Minister.|
▪ Currently serving since May 26, 2014.
|Number on Reshuffles|
|2||▪ Seventeen reshuffles in three years, which included seven major reshuffles.||▪ Four reshuffles in five years. ||▪ This is Modi’s biggest cabinet reshuffle since he assumed power in 2014.|
|Strength in Parliament|
|3||▪ A full majority government and the Congress party won 411 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats.||▪ During Vajpayee’s third term, his National Democratic Alliance had won 303 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats.||▪ Modi has witnessed full majority governments since the beginning of his term. At present, the National Democratic Alliance has 334 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats.|
Although this data is restricted to three prime ministers, it’s pretty easy to figure out that reshuffles are common in every government.
Patterns of Cabinet Shuffle, Then and Now
In his article, first published on November 15, 1986, Journalist Prabhu Chawla had written about former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s sixth cabinet shuffle in two years.
The article recounted that Rajiv Gandhi first called for resignation letters from his cabinet ministers without prior notice. Due to this, Abdul Ghafoor, then urban development minister, strongly argued against Gandhi’s decision and justified his performance during his term. But eventually, he tendered his resignation. In contrast, other cabinet ministers handed their resignation without much resistance.
Further, instead of resisting a sudden cabinet reshuffle, Arun Nehru, who was part of the cabinet and the Nehru-Gandhi family, went a step ahead and wrote:
‘I thank you for the opportunity you have given me to work with you.’
Although most remained silent over the current cabinet reshuffle, West Bengal’s MP Babul Supriyo had put a post on Facebook saying that he was ‘asked to resign‘. Later he changed it to ‘Yes, I have resigned from the Council of Ministers!!’
Under PM Modi, there have been fourteen cabinet reshuffles, but most have been touted as strategic or developmental. Plus, none of these shuffles faced any significant uproar from the union ministers. The same could be because both PM Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi enjoyed an unrestrained and comfortable majority in the Parliament as opposed to Congress’ term from 2004-2014, which mainly relied on a coalition and witnessed some public tiffs over cabinet reshuffles.
This is especially in line with what Csaba Nikolenyi wrote in her piece titled, ‘The selection and de-selection of cabinet ministers’. In her article, she traced how Indian politics plays out within the Parliament, especially during cabinet reshuffles. She said this regarding the Congress government after independence with had a majority:
“…the de-institutionalization of the Congress Party left the PM incomplete and full control over the cabinet, which was indicated by an increase in cabinet reshuffles and the forced resignation of cabinet ministers.”
The Next Few Years: What Should We Expect?
With the Lok Sabha polls due in 2024, the Congress party deemed it a ‘political gimmick‘ in the face of a plummeting economy and Covid mismanagement.
While many understand this as a routine practice, some have compared the cabinet shuffle under Modi-Shah leadership with the Kamaraj Plan. It’s named after Kumaraswami Kamaraj, who was three-time chief minister of Madras. Writing for the print, Kumar Anshuman, says that Shah also mirrors Kamaraj; since the latter was crucial to PM Jawaharlal Nehru as Shah is to PM Modi.
In the wake of anger against Nehru’s government, Kamaraj had suggested that all ministers must resign and come back by winning the people’s confidence. To show confidence, he tendered his resignation first. This move and subsequent resignations created a stir. Thus, the Kamaraj Plan was successful.
It’s not certain whether or not Shah is the Kamaraj of the current government, but besides internal politics, the Modi cabinet reshuffle reflects heavily on governance within the party.
Especially since, during his campaign in 2014, PM Modi had promised ‘minimum government, maximum governance‘, it’s clear that the same is not happening anymore.
When PM Modi took over in 2014, there were forty-three ministers in his cabinet. Today, the number has gone up to seventy-seven.
It’s important to understand that these reshuffles matter because they affect policy formulation, affecting the public directly. Ministers do need to serve the interest of the parties to which they belong. However, it affects them to foster relationships with the key stakeholders in the concerned sectors.
Changing a minister is not only about a new portfolio only. It also entails a completely revised strategy of functioning within a particular ministry.
Notably, the new cabinet has five ministers from minority communities. It also has Twenty-seven ministers from Other Backward Classes, eight from the Scheduled Tribe and twelve belonging to the Scheduled Caste backgrounds.
Only time will tell whether a relatively inclusive cabinet will bring any tangible change or if it will prove to be another act of appeasement.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that the individuals who have been inducted into the cabinet hail from regions bound to contest assembly elections before 2024. Therefore, it could be a sophisticated indication to keep the poll-bound states happy, or a chance to redeem itself from the blunders of the last couple of months.
 Bhabani Sen Gupta (1988). Cabinet-Making and Unmaking. Economic and Political Weekly, Feb. 6, 1988, Vol. No. 6 (Feb. 6, 1988), pp. 230-233. Retrieved July 09, 2021, from https://ezproxy.svkm.ac.in:2113/stable/4378068?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Cabinet+making+and+unmaking&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DCabinet%2Bmaking%2Band%2Bunmaking%26acc%3Don%26wc%3Don%26fc%3Doff%26group%3Dnone%26refreqid%3Dsearch%253A37488e04506a92ec6d2be5b2c91fe3aa&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3Aaf1a05a2d418c7ec59f296caf00e7238&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
 Cabinet reshuffle aimed at strengthening BJP: Advani – https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/cabinet-reshuffle-aimed-at-strengthening-bjp-advani/articleshow/35892065.cms?from=mdr
 Nikolenyi, C., & Dowding, K. (2014). India: the selection and de-selection of cabinet ministers. In P. Dumont (Ed.), The Selection of Ministers around the World (1st ed., Ser. Routledge, p. 99). essay, Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315757865
Note: Certain additions are made by the editor for the sake of cohesiveness.