Why does 3.0 look like 2.0?

Is it that the BJP lacks the necessary talent to fill the all-important roles? Or is it that no one dare speak the truth of a 'defeat' to Narendra Modi?

Narendra Modi (far right) and ministers being sworn into the 18th Lok Sabha cabinet (file photo)
Narendra Modi (far right) and ministers being sworn into the 18th Lok Sabha cabinet (file photo)

Aakar Patel

India’s new government has a new cabinet that is the old cabinet.

The ministers for home, defence, foreign affairs and finance will be the same.

The Big Four are the most important as these make up the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)—and Messrs Shah (Amit), Singh (Rajnath) and Jaishankar (S.) and Ms Sitharaman (Nirmala) have retained their respective prestige portfolios.

Additionally, road and highways will again be managed by Nitin Gadkari; railways by Ashwini Vaishnaw; commerce and industry by Piyush Goyal; and law by Arjun Ram Meghwal.

Even where portfolios have been shuffled, ministers have been retained: readers will remember names like Kiren Rijiju, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Giriraj Singh... 

Some famous names are gone, like Smriti Irani and Rajeev Chandrasekhar— at least for now; but this is because they lost in high-profile contests.

No reason has been given for moving around those ministers who have been retained but shifted.

Presumably this has been done to accommodate allies — the Telugu Desam (civil aviation), the Janata Dal (Secular) (steel), the Janata Dal (United) (micro, medium and small industries), the Lok Janshakti Party (food processing), the Shiv Sena (ayurveda and yoga) — or to bring in former BJP chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh (agriculture) and Manohar Khattar of Haryana (housing). 

Overall, it resembles not so much a new cabinet as one that has undergone a minor reshuffle.

Back in the day when most newspapers actually reported news, this would have been reported ‘below the fold’, as it were — meaning, not in the top half of the newspaper.

The question is: Why does 3.0 look like 2.0?

The obvious reason is that there is nothing to change because everything is going well. Change is necessary only if there is a need for course correction, and because the BJP won the election, there is no such need.

But defeat, meaning sitting in the Opposition, would have meant no BJP cabinet at all. So perhaps it is unclear what the middle ground might be in such a line of thinking and what conditions might trigger change.

‘All is well’ is an unlikely reason. What, then, could it be?

One possibility is weak bench strength means there are not enough talented individuals in the party to be given the important jobs, and the prime minister is stuck with the small set he has.

But this reason, too, does not hold water. Under this prime minister, the PMO functions as a mini-cabinet and intervenes on all critical issues anyway, as the defence, finance and foreign ministries know only too well.

There is a third possibility, and that is the reluctance or inability to concede that something has, in fact, gone wrong.

On 5 February 2024, the prime minister made a speech in the Lok Sabha that has been uploaded on his YouTube channel. In conclusion, he says: “Mr Speaker, normally I don’t get into the issue of numbers. But I have observed the mindset of the nation. It will certainly take the NDA beyond 400, but it will also definitely (avashya) give the BJP 370 seats.”

At this point, the treasury benches are thumped and the chant of ‘Modi! Modi!’ rises. The prime minister repeats: “370 seats for the BJP and beyond 400 for the NDA”. The thumping and chanting continues.

As we now know, this did not happen. The BJP did not get 370; in fact, it did not even get 270. For the first time in his career, the prime minister is leading a minority government.

Is this a defeat?

If you look at the Opposition and its voters, they are behaving as if they have won. The fact that the new government is shaky and dependent on external support is not lost on them.

As Yogendra Yadav has said, the acceptability and prestige of the last decade is gone. The invincibility is gone—and gone forever.

For this very reason, many BJP supporters (and the prime minister’s following in particular) remain despondent. Externally, things have changed. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is again expressing itself on issues concerning the government’s functioning after a decade of silence. NDA partners are asserting themselves.

It is possible to be blind to all this and carry on as if nothing has happened — but that will not change the reality.

The voter has told the prime minister he is less popular than he was in 2019 and 2014. The voter has also told him that it is okay with an NDA government — but not a BJP one.

To pretend we are still in February would be to delude oneself. There is no question that the performances of key ministries, including finance and perhaps even home, were the reason for the defeat.

Carrying on without change is to continue with the damage.

But who in the party can tell Modi that?

Not those who have returned to their positions around him. Not those who know they will be punished for speaking the truth.

For those who oppose the BJP, nothing good will come of being in denial. As the coming months will show, the world does not change itself to align with one’s delusions.

Views are personal. More of Aakar Patel's writings may be read here.

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