Modi 'wants to overhaul Cabinet but short of talent'

NEW DELHI • After a drubbing in state polls in November, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to overhaul his Cabinet to weed out the underperformers and improve his government's image. Problem is, several sources said, he cannot find the right replacements.

As New Delhi buzzes with speculation about changes in several ministries, senior members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a close aide to Mr Modi said some changes could come early next year, but that the talent pool was too shallow for a major revamp.

Pressure is mounting on Mr Modi to revive his party's fortunes. Nearly two years after he swept to power on a promise of jobs and growth, the shine is coming off - reforms to revive investment have withered and the economy is stuttering. Rural distress has grown after two successive droughts.

"The challenge is to identify the right candidates who can deliver fast-paced reforms and policies in their work sphere," the aide said.

Articulate and suave, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has been considered for the defence portfolio - a high-profile role crucial to Mr Modi's geopolitical ambitions and plans to boost Indian industry. But there is no one to take Mr Jaitley's place in finance, the sources said.

A spokesman for Mr Modi declined to comment.

An official in Mr Jaitley's office said it did not have any knowledge of a possible reshuffle.

Mr Modi tends to keep such decisions close to his chest, and the sources said the final decision lies with the Prime Minister. They added he has yet to make up his mind.

Another close Modi aide dismissed talk of a reshuffle as speculation, saying it had no basis.

The problem with the govern- ment's search for talent is that Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist administration is loath to tap people linked with other ideologies, like liberals or the left. And the right-wing intelligentsia has not developed after decades of rule by the centrist Congress party, under which liberal institutions flourished.

"Compared to the Congress, we have a smaller talent pool and less exposure, but it's only a matter of time that we expand our base," BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said. He said Mr Modi has "embarked on the process of fine-tuning the government machinery and also sent a concrete signal that inefficiency will be checked".

The BJP's defeat in Bihar state polls earlier this year led to calls from within the party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to remove ministers and officials who failed to deliver. Although a general election is not due until 2019, the government's fortunes will depend on upcoming provincial polls, including in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

Top RSS and BJP leaders are expected to meet and discuss these issues in New Delhi next month.

A revamp is also expected to send the message that Mr Modi will not tolerate remarks by ministers that fan intolerance against India's non-Hindu minorities.

Junior ministers Giriraj Singh and Niranjan Jyoti could be removed after making public remarks deemed anti-minority, the sources said. Both their offices said they have no information about reshuffle plans.

Some ministers are looking for a change. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj asked to be moved to a portfolio with a more domestic focus, the sources said. Ms Swaraj's office declined comment on her plans.

Mr Modi is looking to the RSS and may go further afield in southern and north-eastern states to find lesser-known faces to bring to his government, his aide said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Modi 'wants to overhaul Cabinet but short of talent''. Print Edition | Subscribe