NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made sweeping changes in his cabinet and junior ministers, in what is being seen as a bid to restore his government’s image hit both by a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and a faltering economy.
Modi appointed 36 new ministers on Wednesday after 12 senior cabinet ministers stepped down.
One of the key appointments is that of a new health minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, who will now oversee management of the pandemic in the world’s second-worst-hit country as health experts warn of an impending third wave later in the year.
Analysts say Modi’s new team faces the task of restoring the government’s credibility and addressing the wave of public anger that erupted in the aftermath of its handling of the recent health crisis.
“Brand Modi is not as potent or as powerful as it was in in 2019 when he was reelected with a massive mandate for a second term,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said.
“The handling of COVID during the second wave plus the bruised economy in recent years has exposed the myth that Modi is all-powerful, that he is capable of doing anything.”
Modi, one of the country’s most popular prime ministers, swept to power in 2014 on the promise of providing strong governance and ushering in “good days” for the country.
However, tough questions have been raised about the competence of his government following critical shortages of hospital beds and oxygen that left tens of thousands struggling for access to health care even in cities like New Delhi during a devastating second wave of the pandemic in April and May. More than half the 400,000 reported deaths occurred in the last three months.
The government has also faced criticism for a slow-moving immunization program that has been hobbled by vaccine shortages. Only about 5% of Indians have been fully vaccinated so far.
“The rejig exercise is about course correction and creating the right image for the government which did take a beating in the pandemic’s second wave,” said Sandeep Shastri, pro vice chancellor of Jain University.
“The ministers who were shown the door are those who did not demonstrate the right political shrewdness,” he said.
Analysts say a distressed economy that plunged by over 7% last year, resulting in millions of job losses, has also led to disillusionment, particularly among the poor and middle classes. Hopes of a swift economic recovery this year have been set back by the pandemic’s second wave.
“I think Mr. Modi and the [ruling] Bharatiya Janata Party is sensing a new vulnerability,” Kidwai said.
Regional polls to be held in seven states next year are also a key focus of the ministerial overhaul, analysts said.
The BJP failed to wrest the battleground state of West Bengal from a regional party in April, despite a high-profile campaign by Modi. The electoral setback has raised concerns about the prospects of the BJP in upcoming polls, particularly in Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state that is a critical prize for a political party that wants to govern India.
More than a dozen of the new ministers come from states that go to the polls representing different castes and regional communities, a key factor in India’s politics.
“There was also a need for political accommodation,” Shastri said.
“They needed to give political representation to groups such as lower castes, tribal and backward communities, to states which go the polls and to political allies,” he said.
Among the high-profile ministers who stepped down was Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was in charge of the information technology and social justice ministries. Prasad had spearheaded sweeping new laws to…