Modi expands Indian government by 14 ministers ahead of state elections

The new ministers hail from 10 states, with seven coming from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand, and one coming from Karnataka – all states that will hold elections in the next two years.

Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, third left, stands with newly sworn-in ministers at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on July 5, 2016. Press Trust of India via AP
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NEW DELHI // Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a large expansion of his government on Tuesday, bringing in 19 new ministers in an apparent bid to secure allies ahead of state elections over the next two years.

The new ministers hail from 10 states, with seven coming from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand, which will elect new state governments early next year. One of the new ministers comes from Karnataka, which will hold state elections in early 2018.

The new ministers were sworn in by president Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday. As of yet, none of them have been assigned to particular ministries.

Also on Tuesday, five current ministers resigned to make way for the new additions. The council of ministers – which includes both cabinet and non-cabinet ministers – now numbers 78, four short of the maximum of 82 allowed under the Indian constitution.

Mr Modi said on Monday that the reshuffle – his second in two years – was merely a matter of course and did not cite electoral concerns as his motivation.

The government’s budget had marked out certain ministries for further funding and attention, and “the [reshuffle] exercise will reinforce the government’s focus as outlined in the budget this year”, he said.

He added that changes were being made because he wanted “doers and performers” in government.

The new ministers will all be of junior rank and so remain outside of the cabinet – a core group of ministers that advises Mr Modi and clears government decisions.

Mr Modi’s expansion runs counter to his 2014 campaign promise of “minimum government, maximum governance”. When the prime minister was sworn in just over two years ago, he named a 44-member council of ministers. Of these, 16 ministers were of cabinet rank – the smallest cabinet named by a prime minister in 16 years. The cabinet has since grown by over 50 per cent, however, and now includes 27 ministers.

“These reshuffles do tend to happen towards the middle of a prime ministerial term,” said Amulya Ganguli, a New Delhi-based political analyst. “I think Modi has realised that it’s important to keep the people in his party, and in other parties, satisfied. This is why he’s choosing to go back on this promise of a small cabinet.”

The demographic backgrounds of the ministers point to the ambitions of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to secure allies within large or influential caste groups.

Five of the 19 ministers sworn in on Tuesday are Dalits, the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system but also one of the most numerous, constituting roughly a sixth of India’s population.

Two other new ministers, Jaswant Sinh Bhabhor from Gujarat and Faggan Singh Kulaste from Madhya Pradesh, belong to the “Scheduled Tribes”, a group of indigenous tribes that are officially recognised by the constitution. Nearly 104 million Indians are part of this group.

C R Chaudhry and P P Chaudhry, meanwhile, are Jats, members of a north Indian caste group that has been protesting – sometimes violently – against Mr Modi’s government over the past year, demanding guaranteed quotas in government jobs and educational institutions.

Such choices, Mr Ganguli said, reflect the electoral arithmetic that ruling parties commonly perform in Indian state and caste politics.

“These calculations are always there,” he said. “Even the fact that [the BJP is] making these choices so far in advance of state elections – a year or more in advance – shows how [the party] is constantly in electioneering mode.”

“They’re always thinking about the next campaign to run, the next election to win.”

SSubramanian@thenational.ae