19 new faces in Cabinet as Modi eyes state elections

Different castes, religions and regions represented as Indian PM seeks to widen appeal

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed 19 politicians from diverse backgrounds as junior ministers in a bid to strengthen his government and appeal to different communities ahead of state-level elections next year.

Among those sworn in at a ceremony at the presidential residence yesterday were former newspaper editor M.J. Akbar, prominent Dalit leader Ramdas Bandu Athawale and Ms Anupriya Patel, leader of Apna Dal, a small political party from Uttar Pradesh, a key state that goes to the polls next year.

There was at least one promotion: Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar rose from minister of state to Cabinet minister. The portfolios were expected to be announced last night.

Mr Modi came to power in 2014 promising "minimum government and maximum governance" and started with 45 Cabinet and junior ministers. But within five months, he was forced to expand his Cabinet as many ministers were holding multiple portfolios. With the new appointments, the government has around 80 ministers, with Indian media reporting that five junior ministers had been dropped.

In India, ministerial appointments are also an exercise in giving representation to different castes, religions and regions.

Experts said that Mr Modi had deliberately included politicians from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, which are among the next batch of states to go to the polls next year.

"He is doing some social balancing and bringing in people from states that are going to the elections, and Dalits (formerly known as 'untouchables')," said Dr San- deep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

The new junior ministers include three MPs from Uttar Pradesh and several MPs representing the lower classes and Dalits such as Mr Athawale, chief of the Republican Party of India . The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has traditionally had its support base among the upper castes, but is wooing the Dalits to expand its base.

As the Modi government nears the halfway mark of its five-year term, pressure is growing on it to show that it is creating jobs and that its schemes and welfare benefits are reaching the poor.

Yesterday, Mr Modi invited the new ministers for tea and asked them to start working immediately to prepare for Parliament this month.

"Congrats to newly sworn-in colleagues. Let's work together to bring a positive difference & for #TransformingIndia," he tweeted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline '19 new faces in Cabinet as Modi eyes state elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe