Modi reshuffles Cabinet amid sagging support

The presidential palace in New Delhi. India's new ministers will take oath during a cabinet reshuffle on July 7, 2021.
The presidential palace in New Delhi. India's new ministers will take oath during a cabinet reshuffle on July 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi overhauled his Cabinet on Wednesday (July 7) in a bid to repair his dented image as the nation emerges from its devastating Covid-19 outbreak ahead of crucial state elections. 

Fifteen Cabinet ministers and 28 junior ministers were sworn in by President Ram Nath Kovind at a ceremony in the colonial-era presidential palace in New Delhi. 

Ruling party loyalists Hardeep Singh Puri and Anurag Singh Thakur were among those elevated to Cabinet rank. 

Ahead of the reshuffle, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar were among 12 ministers who resigned, a statement from the President’s office said. New portfolios will be announced later. 

Dr Vardhan was in charge of India’s Covid-19 strategy and came under fire as the country struggled to contain a devastating second wave of infections in April and May. 

Mr Modi’s usually unshakeable popularity fell as India’s health infrastructure almost collapsed. Major cities ran out of oxygen, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients and crematoriums struggled to keep pace with the rising death toll. 

Mr Prasad’s resignation follows the government’s bruising legal fight with social media giants, including Twitter and Facebook, while Mr Javadekar – who was also the Environment Minister – exits his post at a time when there is growing pressure on India to zero out its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of China. 

Mr Sarbananda Sonowal, the former chief minister of Assam, Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia, Mr Narayan Rane, Mr Bhupender Yadav and Mr Ashwini Vaishnaw are among the leaders from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who were included in the Cabinet. 

This is Mr Modi’s fourth Cabinet change since coming to power in 2014 and the first in his second term. His government’s ratings dropped from 75 per cent in 2019 to 51 per cent this year, according to the LocalCircles polling company survey released on May 29, providing one of the first indications that his enduring appeal with voters may be fading. 

Along with boosting vaccine production to inoculate India’s large adult population, Mr Modi also needs to revive the pandemic-hit economy, which is just showing signs of recovery after a record contraction. 

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on June 28 unveiled fresh aid, including the extension of a loan guarantee programme, to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic. Most economists see the measures as falling short, forcing the Reserve Bank of India to stay accommodative for longer despite growing price pressures. 

People in India experienced significant suffering during the pandemic, and this reshuffle is “an attempt to boost Modi’s eroding image and correct the falling credibility of his government”, said Dr Satish Misra, a New Delhi-based independent political analyst. 
“This is also to accommodate some leaders from his party and allies ahead of state assembly elections next year.” 

Elections to five state assemblies – Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state; Punjab; Uttarakhand; Goa; and Manipur – will take place in the first half of next year. The Bharatiya Janata Party rules all these states except Punjab.