Round Two

The cabinet reshuffle heralds a discreet but momentous new phase in the exercise of RSS power

The strategy behind the cabinet reshuffle is exemplified by the appointment as ministry of human resource development of Prakash Javadekar, a Sangh stalwart known for his quiet efficiency, in place of the grandstanding Smriti Irani. Press Trust of India / AP
01 August, 2016

Even before the hype surrounding the recent cabinet reshuffle and expansion had died down, the spin had begun. Gossip in Lutyens’ Delhi played no small part in both, and, as is usual, it got things wrong on most important counts. The reshuffle was not, as it was bandied about, a sign of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo further asserting its control over the government. Rather, it was about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh laying down the law. The new cabinet appointments represent a midterm course correction meant to ensure that the Sangh Parivar’s ends are achieved—and, crucially, that they are achieved quietly.

The three most important changes—the end of Smriti Irani’s reign over the ministry of human resource development, Arun Jaitley losing charge of the ministry of information and broadcasting, and Jayant Sinha’s exit as a minister of state for finance—all point to the same conclusion. These three owed their earlier positions to their proximity to Modi and Shah, and have never been on great terms with the RSS. It is a perversion of logic to believe that Modi and Shah would assert their authority by diminishing the responsibilities of those closest to them.

With each of the three dismissals, the arguments used to posit a Modi-Shah ascendancy made little sense. Smriti Irani, various Lutyens’ commentators claimed, was punished for touting her closeness to Modi and embarrassing the government on various occasions. What this reasoning overlooked was that a word from Modi could have ensured that Irani changed her ways far earlier, and the fact that it did not come indicated that she had his full approval all along. The crucial thing Irani didn’t have, though, was the RSS’s backing. This became clear in the choice of her successor, Prakash Javadekar. An old Sangh favourite, Javadekar chose for his first public engagement in his new role a seminar on the government’s education policy, organised by the Bharat Shikshan Mandal, an RSS-linked outfit.

Jayant Sinha’s removal from the finance ministry has been projected as a signal to his father, the BJP old-timer Yashwant Sinha, who has been harshly critical of the Modi government. But Yashwant Sinha was critical of this government well before his son was inducted into the cabinet, in November 2014. Jayant Sinha’s exit can only be understood in light of the RSS’s dislike, given the swadeshi emphasis of its economics, of his background with multinational organisations such as McKinsey and Company and Omidyar Network.

Then there is Arun Jaitley. His loss of the information and broadcasting portfolio was perhaps the most significant move of the reshuffle, yet it was also the most underplayed—particularly when compared to the headlines dedicated to Irani and Sinha’s reassignments. Jaitley had done a highly competent job of promoting this government in the media, with mainstream news organisations forgoing even the most reasonable spirit of scepticism with regard to its agenda or achievements. He also stood behind Modi and Shah on every important occasion, giving them no reason to act against him. The only conceivable explanation for his reduced power is, here again, the Sangh’s aversion to him—which it has never made a secret of.

The only evidence put forward to suggest that the RSS lost out in the reshuffle was the removal of Ram Shankar Katheria, a former pracharak, or full-time RSS worker, from the ministry of human resource development. But with Javadekar taking over the ministry, there is no longer any need for someone like Katheria inside it to safeguard the Sangh’s interests. To further undermine any suggestion that the RSS has been sidelined, consider also that the only fresh face with a significant portfolio in the expanded cabinet is the new environment minister, Anil Dave—an RSS man who handled the 2003 election campaign in Madhya Pradesh for the BJP, which saw Uma Bharti oust the Congress’s Digvijaya Singh as the state’s chief minister.

Dave’s role in Madhya Pradesh extended far beyond that election, and he was among those who oversaw what happened in the state following it—which is very relevant to understanding the strategy underlying the government’s new appointments. Bharti, long a Sangh favourite, was forced to leave the post of chief minister within a year, following a warrant for her arrest in an old case. Her replacement was Babulal Gaur, a BJP veteran, but his tenure did not last long. The post eventually went to Shivraj Singh Chouhan, an RSS pick who has presided over the state ever since. There was little difference in ideological terms between Bharti and Chouhan, but the difference in their approaches to ruling was substantial. Bharti backed every one of her initiatives with loud rhetoric and theatrics—which attracted a great deal of public attention, but also, often, ridicule and opposition. Chouhan, by contrast, has implemented much the same agenda that Bharti pursued, but quietly, with little to no fuss. Today, the RSS’s power in Madhya Pradesh extends through the state administration and into the education system—and this has come about with hardly any negative publicity.

The RSS has learnt from this model of exercising power. Smriti Irani’s removal is a perfect example of this; she was to the centre what Bharti was to Madhya Pradesh. In this context, the removal of Katheria, notorious for his hate-filled rhetoric on Muslims, makes perfect sense. So too the newly diminished prominence of Mahesh Sharma and VK Singh, who have also invited controversy with their pronouncements. The RSS, above all, is interested in the practical implementation of its aims rather than in empty rhetoric, however in tune with its views that rhetoric may be.

The reshuffle suggests that the government will now hew more closely to the path of quietly implementing Sangh-approved policies. In a piece published in this magazine in March, titled ‘The New Mandarins,’ I argued that Amit Shah’s second term as president of the BJP—which began in January, soon after the party was decimated in a state election in Bihar under Shah’s direct watch—would see the increasing dominance of the party by the RSS. Subsequent events have borne this out. The BJP fought the recent Assam election without the oversize projection of Modi and Shah that it had banked on in Bihar, and the RSS had a substantially larger say in how the party’s campaign was conducted there than it had in any other election of recent years. The cabinet reshuffle is a logical continuation of the trend. This is not to suggest that there is a rift between the RSS on one hand and the Modi-Shah duo on the other. Rather, it is to clarify where the real power in this administration now lies.

In his short time with the ministry of human resource development, Javadekar has already signalled that he will pursue the RSS’s agenda more silently and effectively than Irani ever managed. The seminar on education policy mentioned above offered a case in point: Javadekar’s presence there went largely unnoticed, where Irani’s would have attracted widespread media attention. Going by his record in previous postings, including over his recent stint at the environment ministry, Javadekar is unlikely to let things get out of hand on campuses, as Irani did at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad. Nor is he likely to be disrespectful to university officials in the ways Irani was. As far as the Sangh is concerned, this will make him more effective.

This is also true of Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley’s replacement at the ministry of information and broadcasting. Appointments through the ministry to institutions such as the Film and Television Institute of India and the Central Board of Film Certification, which were earlier largely exercises in cronyism directed by Jaitley, are now likely to be better thought out—and, for that reason, more effective than they have been so far at furthering the Sangh’s aims. The same applies to appointments to educational institutions controlled by the ministry of human resource development under Javadekar’s leadership.

Of course the Indian commentariat, much of it rooted in Lutyens’ Delhi, is given to finding hope where there is none. The columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued of the reshuffle that “Many new faces are about signalling that the government is going to have to do that job of social mediation.” But only one new Muslim, MJ Akbar, was brought into the cabinet, while one, Najma Heptullah, was moved out. Moreover, Akbar has been assigned to the ministry of external affairs. It is difficult to see how this might achieve “social mediation” across the gaping communal fissures that the Modi administration has opened up at home.

Another columnist, Surjit Bhalla, assessing the government more generally in the aftermath of the reshuffle, and amid the BJP’s preparations for a crucial election in Uttar Pradesh next year, argued that “everything is falling in place for India. Good economic policies, solid growth, declining inflation and increasing foreign investment—the Modi administration has everything going for it except the belief that it is also capable of taking the moral high ground in its practice of conducting elections. Assam was one example—the nation awaits for the BJP to make it a trend.” Going by such assessments, it can seem that the only problem with this administration is its habit of occasionally lapsing into divisive rhetoric. While it is unlikely that the BJP will shy away from stoking communal tension in its campaign in Uttar Pradesh, where doing just that has served it well in the past, it is probable that the reshuffle will deliver some of what Bhalla and others like him want: less display of the kinds of crude views the likes of VK Singh and Katheria have been voicing in the recent past. But this will do nothing to correct the real danger that this government poses.

In July 2014, the right-wing intellectual Arun Shourie, before he fell out with the Modi administration, published a revised edition of his Eminent Historians: Their Techniques, Their Line, Their Fraud, a critique of the work of leftist historians. It included a new chapter, where Shourie noted his concern over recent moves by right-wing forces:

the sudden rush of seminars and colloquia being organised by governments of the Right; the swift rush of the mediocre to the new centres of power; the type of persons who were put into positions of control in academic institutions when the opportunity arose; the lawyers’ defence being advanced to explain away blemishes of their governments—all this bodes ill for the Right.

This process—of elevating mediocre academics in order to manipulate education policy and rewrite history to fit the views of the Sangh—is now going to accelerate. It is already underway in Madhya Pradesh—and in Rajasthan, its BJP-ruled neighbour. The central government is only furthering the same project. The Congress and the Left attempted something very similar to enshrine their respective views over past decades, but what is happening today is far better organised. Seeing what the Sangh’s views are, it is also far more mindless. To take just one example, whatever the merits of paying attention to Maharana Pratap, celebrated by the Sangh for his resistance to the Mughals, his impact on the subcontinent, both for better and worse, bears no comparison to that of Akbar, whom the Sangh would gladly write out of history altogether.

As has already happened in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, more people rooted in the Sangh are becoming part of the central administration. Whether in history books or in government, Muslims are being edged out of Indian public life—which is acquiring the majoritarian face that the Sangh has long been working towards. For those of us with a very different view of the Indian republic from the Sangh’s, a view rooted in the constitution, the dangers that this administration poses will only grow. Over the last two years, the attempts to change our public life have been crude and easy to spot. Now, the Sangh project is entering a quieter—and, for this very reason, more pernicious—phase.