Modi shuffles cabinet ministers amid COVID-19 crisis

This is the first cabinet reshuffle since Modi was re-elected in 2019.

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday appointed new federal ministers for health, IT and oil as part of a reshuffle in a bid to reinvigorate his government amid fierce criticism of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Modi appointed Mansukh Laxman Mandaviya as the country’s new health minister just hours after Harsh Vardhan, who was the face of the government’s efforts to fight COVID-19, was asked to step down along with his deputy.

Modi’s government has faced sharp criticism for the chaotic rollout of a nationwide immunisation campaign that experts say had worsened the impact of the second-wave, killing hundreds of thousands. The official death toll after a surge in COVID-19 infections in April and May passed 400,000 last week. Experts believe the actual number may be much higher and there are fears of a third wave soon.

Millions remain unvaccinated. Mandaviya, who belongs to Modi’s home state Gujarat, was previously a junior minister holding the portfolios for ports and chemicals and fertilisers.

Several members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were sworn in at the presidential palace to replace 12 ministers that were fired in the first cabinet reshuffle since Modi was re-elected in 2019 on a promise to transform India into a political and economic power.

Opposition leader P. Chidambaram said the removal of the health minister and his deputy was an acknowledgement that the Modi government had failed in managing the pandemic but the buck should stop with Modi. “There is a lesson for ministers in these resignations. If things go right the credit will go to the PM, if things go wrong the minister will be the fall guy,” he said.

Modi appointed Ashwini Vaishnaw as the new Information and Technology Minister after dismissing Ravi Shankar Prasad at a time when he was leading the government’s efforts to persuade US social media giants to comply with the laws of the country.

Amid high fuel prices Hardeep Singh Puri has been appointed oil minister, replacing Dharmendra Pradhan. Modi also dropped Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar, who was the government’s spokesperson.

He retained his core team at the foreign, finance, home and defence departments even though the economy is in a deep recession and there are widespread concerns that a surge in COVID-19 infections will stall economic recovery.

The reshuffle also came after the defeat of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in April elections in key West Bengal state. Modi will face another major test of his popularity in state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand states in February and March next year, which may prove to be a bellwether for his party in 2024 national elections.