CABINET reshuffles ahead of the polls are not unusual, but Wednesday’s sweeping changes in the Vajpayee Cabinet are bound to create ripples in the otherwise staid political waters for quite some time.
An entirely BJP-specific affair, the ministerial comings and goings altered equations within the party and beyond, and signalled priority areas for the government.
The thrust was on the economy and economic reforms. And on refurbishing the image of the ruling party in a year when key states were due to go to the polls.
Though the prerogative to shuffle his ministerial pack in his own lights was of the Prime Minister, the exercise last Wednesday carried the impress of his number two, L.K. Advani.
Truly, it was a case of the Deputy Prime Minister proposing and the Prime Minister disposing.
Advani’s official residence was the hub of hectic political activity a couple of days before the actual reshuffle.
He discussed the proposed changes, asked incumbent Ministers to put in papers and the new ones to get their ceremonial suits ready for the swearing-in ceremony in the opulent Rashtrapathi Bhawan.
The quiet shift of power from Vajpayee to Advani was one of the most significant features of the reshuffle.
Another was the sacking of the high-profile Pramod Mahajan.
The Minister for Information Technology, Communications and Parliamentary Affairs paid for his controversial and sleazy image.
He had played a partisan role in the on-going corporate war among various telephone companies. And had his name publicly dragged into the scandalous murder a few years ago of a woman reporter, Shivani Bhatnagar.
A senior police officer accused of the murder had repeatedly mentioned Mahajan’s name, though the latter had always denied any wrongdoing.
To be fair, at no stage had the investigating agencies listed Mahajan as a suspect.
But the most immediate cause for Mahajan’s fall from grace lay elsewhere.
As a powerful Minister and the Prime Minister’s major trouble-shooter, the relatively young Mahajan had become indispensable to Vajpayee.
But eventually even the Prime Minister failed to save his protégé when Advani insisted on his being dropped from the Cabinet.
Apparently, he had gone out of his way to favour the provider of Wireless in Limited Loop telephone service launched by one of India’s largest industrial houses.
Mahajan’s partisan role angered the cellular telephone service providers.
Such was Mahajan’s clout that even the supposedly independent Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had abandoned any pretence to be impartial.
The cellular operators petitioned Advani and furnished proof of Mahjan’s tilt against them.
Within days, TRAI corrected itself while Advani dumped Mahajan out of the government.
The reshuffle also signalled the rise of the BJP’s technocrats.
According top priority to economic ministries, the Prime Minister and his deputy handed over key departments with a crucial bearing on the performance of the economy to the two Aruns, that is, Shourie and Jetlie.
The Magsaysay award winner, Arun Shourie ended up being the super minister, what with him being given the charge of Information Technology and Communications besides his own Disinvestment Ministry.
Given Shourie’s doggedness in pursuing the privatisation agenda, there was speculation that he might lose the Disinvestment Ministry.
He had riled important lobbies within the government and outside by successfully securing the nod in the teeth of stiff opposition by the Petroleum Minister and a few others for the sale of the public sector oil refining and marketing behemoths, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited.
However, the Big Two of the government reposed faith in the former World Bank executive-turned-journalist-turned-politician by not only retaining him as Disinvestment Minister but by giving him the equally significant charge of the Ministries of Communications and IT.
Shourie’s promotion marked a refreshing change from the permissive ways of Mahajan.
Upon assuming charge, one of the first things Shourie did was to reassure all concerned that he would not allow corporate houses to influence the decision-making process of the ministries under his charge.
The return of Arun Jaitley to the government nearly eight months after he had left it to work for the BJP organisation underscored, among other things, the woeful paucity of talent in political parties.
Almost all political parties are peopled by professional politicians with little or no background of academic or technical excellence.
The BJP was no exception to the rule. Jaitley’s absence from the government was glaring, for his successor, the former BJP President, Jana Krishnamurthy, was not a patch on him when it came to grappling with the intricacies of ticklish issues.
So the 70-plus Krishnamurthy was politely told to put in his papers while Jaitley was asked to rejoin his old ministry of Law and Justice.
But the icing on the cake, as it were, for the 50-year-old Supreme Court lawyer came when he was also allocated the Ministries of Commerce and Industry.
More than Shourie, Jaitley was the most acceptable modern face of the BJP.
An ace debater who had ably defended the party and the government in Parliament and outside, Jaitley’s return heralded the rise of honest, bright and forward-looking politicians.
The reshuffle established that the BJP leadership was fully alive to the challenge of grooming the next generation to take charge of the party when the old guard led by Vajpayee and Advani called it a day.