New Delhi Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped 12 members of his cabinet on Wednesday in a dramatic reshuffle, including the federal ministers for health and law, as he faces fierce criticism over the government's alleged mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who was the face of the government's efforts to fight Covid-19, was asked to step down along with his deputy. Just hours later, Modi appointed Mansukh Laxman Mandaviya to take on the role.
Official sources told Reuters Vardhan had to pay the political price for the government's struggles to cope with a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections earlier this year that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indians.
The surge in cases between April and June saw the country's healthcare system teeter on the brink of collapse, as hospitals ran out of oxygen and crematoriums passed capacity. The Modi administration has faced both international and domestic criticism over its alleged lack of preparedness, and for the chaotic rollout of India's vaccination program.
"They (the government) don't admit to failure, but this is a way to ensure accountability. This is one way to send a message not only to the health ministry but others in the cabinet that performance matters," said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation.
The country's official Covid death toll crossed 400,000 last week, the majority of fatalities stemming from the surge in infections between April and June -- but experts believe the actual toll may be much higher due to underreporting and poor surveillance.
Vardhan has come under harsh criticism for his approach to the outbreak. Many have lambasted him for declaring that India was in the "end game" of the pandemic on March 7, as infections began to creep up -- then insisting "the situation is under control" on March 30, when daily cases had already increased by five times since the start of the month.
The new health minister, Mandaviya, was previously a junior minister for the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers.
Some 43 new members from Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other allied regional parties were sworn in at the presidential palace to replace the 12 outgoing ministers and expand the cabinet. This is Modi's first cabinet reshuffle since the start of his second term in 2019 and the fourth since coming into power in 2014.
Notable high-profile names remained untouched in the reshuffle, including Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah -- Modi's close ally and second in command. Shah will also head a newly created ministry of co-operation.
Opposition leader P. Chidambaram said the removal of the health minister and his deputy was an acknowledgment the Modi government had failed in managing the pandemic but the buck should stop with the Prime Minister.
"There is a lesson for ministers in these resignations. If things go right the credit will go to the (Prime Minister), if things go wrong the minister will be the fall guy," he said.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, who headed the ministries of electronics and information technology as well as law, also resigned on Wednesday. He was replaced with Ashwini Vaishnaw in the new cabinet lineup.
Prasad's exit comes amid a series of feuds with social media platforms, primarily Twitter, following a change in strict new regulations released in February.
The latest step came on Monday, when the government submitted a court document withdrawing Twitter's immunity over content posted on its platform by third parties in India -- meaning the company can potentially be held legally liable for user posts. The court has yet to weigh in on the matter.
No reasons were provided for Prasad's dismissal, though an industry source familiar with major platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter told Reuters they expected them to welcome the change at the ministry.
"A reset always helps," the source said. "It so far appeared there was lack of conversation."
Amid high fuel prices, Hardeep Singh Puri has been appointed oil minister, replacing Dharmendra Pradhan, who was moved to the education ministry.
Prakash Javadekar, now the former environment minister and government spokesperson, also stepped down from his posts.
The new ministers were sworn in at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of India's president, at a scaled-down ceremony on Wednesday evening.
Despite the many replacements, Modi retained his core team at the foreign, finance, home and defense departments -- even though the economy is in a deep recession and there are widespread concerns a surge in Covid-19 infections will stall economic recovery.
"The larger implication is that the confidence that the Modi government had was shaken by the Covid-19 second wave," said political commentator Rasheed Kidwai. "Modi is trying to introduce a new work culture by these changes."
In an attempt to change the face of the government, Modi has included a younger crowd in the new cabinet, as well as more female representation.
The Prime Minister will face another major test of his popularity in state elections next year, which may prove to be a bellwether for his party in the 2024 national elections.
The right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP currently holds power in four of those five states -- Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. Punjab is the exception.
Winning Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, will be vital for Modi's victory hopes in 2024.
The reshuffle also came after the BJP performed poorly in the West Bengal state elections held in April.
West Bengal, which is viewed as a key battleground, has never been ruled by the BJP, despite aggressive campaigning and massive rallies.