Reshuffle good, but govt must pivot to a consensual attitude in policymaking

After all, any government would try to fulfil as many objectives as it can without rocking the boat.

That a bunch of considerations—poor performance, upcoming polls, caste considerations, political alliances and rewarding good work—have gone into the reshuffling of the Union Council of Ministers, the first set of the changes in NDA-2, is not surprising. After all, any government would try to fulfil as many objectives as it can without rocking the boat. In this instance, all key portfolios remain under their existing stewardship, with the sole exception of the health ministry.

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Indeed, the highlight of the changes, given the nation remains in the throes of the pandemic, would have to be the departure of Harsh Vardhan whose handling of the health portfolio left much to be desired. His departure is a tacit admission of the ministry’s failure to prepare for the second wave of the pandemic, to take action to minimise the distress, and to roll out the vaccination drive quickly.India’s vaccination strategy has not just been poor, it has even taken the Supreme Court prodding the government into reversing some of its sourcing and allocation policies that were clearly ill-thought-out. It is somewhat surprising, however, such an important portfolio wasn’t given to a more senior and experienced minister, but it is hoped that the new minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, settles into the job quickly. Mandaviya has his task cut out for him because he must ensure the country is well-prepared for a possible third wave.

Going by some of the other changes, it would appear the prime minister is concerned not merely with the outcomes but also the manner in which policies are being dealt with. The rather unexpected departure of Ravi Shankar Prasad comes against the backdrop of the minister’s constant run-ins with Big Tech over the newly-framed rules of the Information Technology Act. The minister’s somewhat aggressive style of functioning and his outspoken ways haven’t exactly endeared him to the IT fraternity. One hopes Ashwini Vaishnaw, whose qualifications are very impressive at least on paper, will listen to suggestions and constructive criticism without flying off the handle. Many of the new members find a place in the council because of their caste or the region from which they hail. The attempt at social inclusivity is apparent; now, as many as 27 of the members are from the OBC category, 12 from the SC category and eight from the ST category. The government, it would appear, is laying the groundwork not only for the elections in Uttar Pradesh next year—where caste is an important element—but also to make further inroads into states such as West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. At the same time, there are several young, academically-qualified and experienced faces in the new team, offering promise of reason and open-mindedness.

That the education portfolio has been handed to Dharmendra Pradhan suggests it might be too much to expect any meaningful broad-mindedness on such subjects and that it will be status quo on the NDA’s approach to education. For all the efforts at revamping the image of the NDA, these can only be successful if policies are unbiased and equitable, and the approach is consensual. The handling of the pandemic has shown us just how woefully short of management bandwidth the Centre is and also how unfair. It can only be hoped that the reshuffle is a fresh start.

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