A day before Ram Shankar Katheria was sacked the Minister of State for Human Resource Development (HRD), he had said that there was nothing wrong with the saffronization of education.
He was articulating the long-standing agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which the Hindu patriarchs have been peddling ever since Murli Manohar Joshi was the HRD minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government.
But now, not only Katheria but even Joshi’s feisty successor, Smriti Irani, have been relieved of their charge and moved to the less glamorous textiles ministry.
If any message was delivered to the RSS, it was that its pet project of rewriting textbooks in accordance with its antediluvian ideas could not be implemented via its “moles” in the government and the party like Dinanath Batra, who led the crusade against American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, and the new kid on the saffron block, former model and actress Smriti Irani.
It is a measure of the significance of Irani’s “demotion” in the cabinet reshuffle that her removal hogged the headlines although in the normal course of things, the HRD ministry does not rank as high as finance or external affairs.
But given the education sector’s value to the RSS, Narendra Modi probably had no option but to pointedly distance Delhi from Nagpur, where the RSS has its headquarters.
But reasserting the government’s control over education might not have been the sole consideration for the change. Of greater importance was the need to send the signal that ineptness and courting controversies were not the way forward for any minister.
Irani was guilty of both. Having had no experience of campus life (she had studied only up to Class XII), she made a mess of the unrest among students in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
What is worse, she palpably played to the tune of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the two universities, which were described by saffronites as “dens” of anti-national activists. Her need as a newcomer to the saffron camp to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) students wing in good humour was evidently behind her ill-advised interventions in campus “politics”.
The fact that the new HRD Minister Prakash Javdekar has emphasized the importance of dialogue in dealing with students is a sign that Modi wants an about-turn in the policies of the ministry.
But this particular initiative is not the only indication that Modi has decided to call the shots vis-a-vis the RSS. As is evident, he has succeeded in ensuring that the Ram temple issue will remain on the back burner, the ghar wapsi and love jehad campaigns will be called off and even the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, will refrain from reiterating that all Indians are basically Hindus.
The snubbing of Subramanian Swamy also shows that Modi has no time for those who seemingly utilize their supposed proximity to the RSS to chart their own course on sensitive issues.
What effect these measures will have on the BJP-RSS relations will only be known in course of time. Will the RSS hold back its cadres during the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, which is of prime importance to Modi?
As the reshuffle has shown, Modi’s focus is now wholly on Uttar Pradesh. He is apparently interested more in upstaging Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati than Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, considering that of the 19 new entrants in the ministry, five are Dalits.
Arguably, the BJP is banking on Akhilesh Yadav sinking under the weight of the anti-incumbency factor. Hence the targeting of mainly the BSP although it, too, is currently not in the pink of health in view of internal dissensions.
The million-dollar question is whether Modi’s pitch for development will succeed in edging out the saffron militants who constitute a legion in the state, led by Yogi Adityanath. Any headway by the prime minister in this respect will mark a sea-change in the political scene. It has to be remembered that the BJP’s extraordinary success in the parliamentary polls, when it won 73 out of 80 seats in the state, including two by Apna Dal, was based entirely on support for Modi’s economic programme. To repeat the feat, the BJP has to sideline the Yogi Adityanaths, which means the RSS.
Much will depend on how the refurbished cabinet functions. After the “shock” of Irani’s marginalization, one can sense a new awareness among the ministers about delivering results. A similar urgency was there when Modi first took charge, but it gradually disappeared and was replaced by either a lackadaisical attitude or individual enterprise, which was not always well directed.
For the frequent flyer prime minister, it is make-or-break time. If he can pull it off in Uttar Pradesh, success in 2019 will be virtually assured. Success will also mean that he will be one-up on the RSS, a secret ambition of front-ranking BJP leaders from Vajpayee’s time.