An unbalanced cabinet | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 02, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

An unbalanced cabinet

An unbalanced cabinet

NARENDRA Modi's oath-taking in the presence of 5,000 invitees at a ceremony unprecedented for its grandiose style and pomp resembled a King-Emperor's coronation more than the installation of the prime minister of a democracy. It was of a piece with the extravagance of his multi-billion-dollar election campaign.  
He invited the heads of South Asian governments, including Bangladesh. This was welcome, although purely symbolic.
In substance too, Modi's cabinet choice resembles centralised decision-making around one person in states where chief ministers command absolute power. The new cabinet is dominated by BJP office-bearers, and especially by the Modi-Rajnath-Singh-Arun-Jaitley triumvirate.
They will have the highest cabinet positions, with Jaitley holding three portfolios, including finance and defence, which has never happened before. He was rewarded -- despite losing his election -- for defying his mentor L.K. Advani over Modi's PM-nomination.
Singh was forced to declare repeatedly that he would have no role in government. This was to dispel the impression that someone other than Modi might become PM in case the BJP didn't win a majority. Modi reportedly got the RSS to promise that either he would head the government, or the BJP would sit in opposition.
The 34-strong new team of cabinet ministers and ministers of state with independent charge includes only four non-BJP members, with relatively unimportant portfolios like food processing. The weighty ones have gone to BJP ministers, including education to the inexperienced Smriti Irani -- for brazenly defending Modi and reducing Rahul Gandhi's victory-margin.   
The council of ministers is heavily tilted in favour of the North and West, and against the South and East. West Bengal has no minister in the council. Also under-represented are Dalits, Adivasis, and especially Muslims. Two Modi loyalists have major independent portfolios: Prakash Javadekar and Nirmala Sitharaman. Gen V.K. Singh has external affairs and the Northeast.
This doesn't speak of merit, balance or prudence.  The cabinet bears the indelible impress of one person. If it were to reflect collective responsibility, it should have had more diversity.
Going by businessmen's strident demands, the government will try to boost growth by further weakening India's feeble environmental and labour regulations. Gujarat-style economic elitism and rampant privatisation of public resources will hurt the majority, especially the poor.
In some ways, this would reflect the polarisation wrought by the BJP along caste, class and religious lines. Apart from the Congress's unpopularity, polarisation was key to the BJP's victory -- notwithstanding its 31% vote.
Contrary to the dominant narrative, the people didn't discard caste and religious considerations to back the BJP because it would deliver higher growth, or fulfil their aspirations to a better life.
According to post-poll surveys by Lokniti-CSDS, the election saw India's greatest-ever polarisation Nationally, almost 60% of upper-caste Hindus voted for the BJP, while 43% of Muslims (who felt threatened) backed the Congress. In constituencies with a significant Muslim presence, the BJP won twice as many votes as the Congress.
Polarisation was even sharper in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra, where the BJP won 116 seats. In UP, over 75% of Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias backed it. As did the Jats, thanks to Muzaffarnagar and “love jehad.” This yielded the BJP an unprecedented 71 of 80 seats.    
In Bihar, over 80% of Brahmin, Rajput, Bhumihar and Kayastha voters backed the BJP and allies, giving them 31 of 40 seats. But two-thirds of Yadavs and Muslims backed its opponents.
If BJP seats in its “home states”—Madhya Pradesh (27/29), Gujarat (all 26), Rajasthan (all 25) and Chhattisgarh (10/11) -- are added to its UP-Bihar-Maharashtra tally, the total rises to almost three-fourths of its national score.
The BJP's vote was concentrated in just seven of India's 29 states. Each one percent of the BJP's vote resulted in 1.68% of seats, in contrast to just 0.42% for the Congress.
Other factors too helped the BJP, especially an 8 percentage-point higher voter turnout over 2009. The BJP's vote-gain among under-35 voters was an impressive 14 percentage-points. But fewer women (29%) voted for it than men (33%).
Rich and middle-class voters delivered the BJP a gain of 31 seats (of a sample of 125). In contrast, it gained only eight seats from the poor. Thirty-eight percent of graduates backed the BJP, compared to 27% of those with only primary education and 25% of illiterates -- less than its 31% national vote.
The “Modi factor” helped the BJP “presidentialise” the election and run a high-voltage “mediatised” campaign. But more crucial was its disinformation about “the Gujarat model.”
As discussed here earlier, this model is bogus. Gujarat has far poorer social indices than many states, including Maharashtra, Kerala or Tamil Nadu. But such critical analysis never made it to TV.
Thus, when asked by Lokniti to name India's “most developed state,” 54% said Gujarat, and only 4% Maharashtra. Such is the power of Goebbelsian propaganda!
Besides, for many in the upper-caste elite, Gujarat is their favourite model of growth without equity, and represents Hindu-majoritarianism. Modi's coronation, then, does not represent a victory of “the Indian nation,” but an elite-driven, polarising phenomenon.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.

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