Beyond demotions and elevations, what does the third Cabinet reshuffle tell us about the Narendra Modi government? PM Modi has trimmed the length of his dress (his big missions) given the shortage of cloth (talent).
The crux of the reshuffle story does not lie in the juggling of ministerial portfolios or in the new sign-ins that we saw.
This reshuffle, which is a sombre appraisal of the big Modi missions, may change the course of the government’s priorities in the coming months.
Curious case of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India)
Uma Bharati will now hold the baton of PM’s flagship Clean Indian mission.
The “underperformer” Uma has lost the ambitious Namami Gange project (River Ganga cleaning mission) to the all-powerful Nitin Gadkari.
Nevertheless, as a Cabinet minister, Uma will be leading two erstwhile departments of the ministry of rural development. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan falls under the department of drinking water and sanitation and operates under the direct command of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The department has been promoted to a full Cabinet-level ministry to make space for Uma Bharati.
However, in just three years, the Swachh Bharat mission has found itself at the crossroads. The mission had been launched with much fanfare, with the aim of urban sanitation.
To reap from the massive enthusiasm for the mission, in 2015, the government had also levied a Swachh Bharat cess of 0.5 per cent on all services liable for service tax.
Eventually, the mission subsumed under an already running programme of building toilets in villages to target open defecation, while the urban component programme is more or less confined to an annual cleanliness ranking of the cities.
Uma Bharati has to now lead a mission that is losing its momentum due to challenges of design, strategy and lack of participation from states and local bodies.
As Swachh Bharat cess stands merged with GST, the funds allocated to the Swachh Bharat mission in the next Budget will be worth watching out for.
Way to go: The government must create a synergised architecture for the Clean India mission encompassing various stakeholders – states, local bodies and village administration.
Conundrum of employment and skill
Dharmendra Pradhan was rewarded with chaos for his super-performance. Pradhan, desperately aiming at the chief minister’s house of Orissa, set to go to the polls, has to carry the derailed mission of Skill India on his shoulders along with petroleum ministry.
Marred by corruption and structural bottlenecks, the Skill India mission was caught up in the whirlwind of economic disruptions and slowdown. Skill India couldn’t take off despite enough support – and the establishment of a new (cadre) bureaucracy.
Because the informal sector, the biggest recruiter of skilled manpower, is shrinking owing to an economic slide and disruptions – GST and demonetisation – the revival of the Skill India mission seems unlikely in the near future.
Way to go: The ministry of skill development could be merged with ministry of labour and employment to put synergised employment strategy into action.
Cleaning rivers to linking rivers
The Clean Ganga mission or Namami Gange is all set to take a backseat. Nitin Gadkari, a heavyweight of Team Modi, already has a host of unfinished tasks at hand before he takes on the ambitious mission of cleaning the Ganga.
It is highly unlikely that the Modi government will exhibit tangible results on this front before the sounding of the election bugle.
Under Gadkari’s leadership, the government is all set to shift the goalposts on water management from cleaning rivers to linking rivers. As the Ken-Betwa river-linking project tops PM Modi’s new to-do list, Gadkari may take charge of Rs 5.57 lakh crore ambitious river-linking mission instead of meddling in the messy business of river cleaning.
Way to go: As half the Indian rivers are polluted, it is high time for the government to make an all-inclusive river cleaning mission linked with the projects of urban cleaning.
Prabhu of falling investment
It is unfair to blame the finance ministry entirely for economic downslide. The ministry of commerce and industry, the former responsibility of new defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, shares a fair amount of discredit – with falling investment, sliding exports, a jammed Make in India and dwindling start-ups.
However, while Nirmala Sitharaman embraces the political zenith, Suresh Prabhu will have to deal with her unfinished tasks of investment facilitation and ease of doing business. Dumping blues?
Way to go: As Make in India, the private and foreign promotion drive of Modi government, is likely to remain stuck until economic revival, Suresh Prabhu may fast-track lingering free trade agreements (FTAs) to improve his scores in the reckoning.
The rail-coal knot
It is neither defence nor Ganga, but the railways will put the political will of Modi government through the toughest test.
The beleaguered public transport behemoth requires an urgent structural surgery to arrest its dangerous slide.
Piyush Goyal deserves our compassion as he has been tasked with two of the most challenging ministries – railways and coal – which have public sector monopoly and strongest trade unions.
In July 2016, before the Cabinet reshuffle, PM Modi had said that for him success meant that people could feel the difference and that he would not recognise a putative success that is falsely claimed.
One year on, the recent reshuffle confirms that the task of making a tangible difference to the people has become even more complicated.
Will the Cabinet reshuffle be followed by a shake-up in government programmes?
The countdown has begun for last mile delivery.
Article first appeared on dailyo.in