The Sunday reshuffle successfully camouflages Prime Minister Narendra Modi's real political concerns he may address in the coming months: The concern about the BJP's current and prospective allies who will play a critical role in the 2019 general elections.
The rise of Nirmala Sitharaman is the prime example. The quiet and efficient spokesperson of the party, considered to have managed the commerce ministry proficiently, has been made the country's defence minister. The only other woman to have held that post was Indira Gandhi.
The Prime Minister has not explained why he chose Nirmala, but the political significance of the elevation is not lost. It is seen as the BJP's outright signal to Tamil Nadu's people about the party's interest in that state. Unofficially, and with the deniability clause in operation, she has been the party's mediator in Tamil Nadu affairs for some months now. The critics of the AIADMK have been hollering that the BJP has been interfering in the factional affairs of the AIADMK and that the BJP's moves are aligned with its goal of fighting the 2019 elections with some kind of an alliance in Tamil Nadu. To that extent, Nirmala, who till recently was seen as an Andhraite, thanks to her marriage with one, is now seen as a Tamilian, thanks to her Madurai roots.
The former bureaucrats brought into the council have been given key departments, in line with their track records as efficient officers. Former home secretary RK Singh Minister is Minister of State (Independent Charge) of two ministries – Power and New and Renewable Energy. Hardeep Singh Puri is Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Housing and Urban Affairs. Alfons Kannanthanam is Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Tourism and Electronics and Information Technology. Satyapal Singh is Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Of course, Singh, being a Jat, is also an answer to Ajit Singh in western Uttar Pradesh.
Firebrand BJP leader from Karnataka Anant Kumar Hegde is the new Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. The man with RSS roots and whose strident Hindutva stand has often put the BJP in a tricky situation is now out of Karnataka, leaving it to Yeddyurappa and others to plan for the forthcoming assembly elections.
If the reshuffle was intended to ease the burden of ministers holding multiple portfolios, it did not live up to that expectation. Nine cabinet ministers, seven ministers of state with independent charge and 11 ministers of state remain saddled with multiple ministries after the reshuffle. Dr. Jitendar Singh has the maximum of them. Five ministries. Nitin Gadkari, Narendra Singh Tomar and Dr.Harshvardhan are the cabinet ministers with three key ministries each.
This can only mean one thing: Now that the Prime Minister has more or less finished representing the BJP in the council, he will now address the NDA allies, both current and prospective ones. That is when some of the additional burden will ease. Modi will need to talk to the Shiv Sena, the Telugu Desam Party to smoothen their ruffled feathers. He will need to handle the home-coming ally, Nitish Kumar, with kid gloves. The JDU's link with the BJP will be concretised once the party is represented in the council of ministers. The bone of contention is how many berths should Nitish get.
Then there are the prospective allies. Rumors are not dead yet about the Nationalist Congress Party. What kind of relationship the AIADMK will have with the NDA will depend on how the factional fight evolves in the coming days or weeks. A couple of family members of Telangana chief minister and TRS leader K Chandrashekhara Rao admire Modi. Will that translate into an alliance? It looks remote as of now. It is the firming up of these political linkages that will help the Narendra Modi-Amti Shah stitch up the country in a BJP maze for 2019.