India's NaMo Picks His Team

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi, who will be the next prime minister of India, wears a garland presented to him by his supporters Amit Dave/Reuters

Narendra Modi has five years till the next general election to show he can get India moving but NaMo, as the Indian media call him, has said over the weekend that he needs 10 years to transform the country—which he is likely to get if progress goes relatively well in the first period.

He was elected parliamentary leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) May 20 and will then meet President Pranab Mukherjee to stake his claim to form India's new government. He is likely to be sworn in on May 26.

The prospect of 10 years of Modi rule strikes fear among many people who are afraid that would give him and his supporters time to entrench Hindu nationalist policies in various ways, destroying India's traditional secular base that caters for minorities such as Muslims and Christians.

Modi has tried to quell that fear by making statements about inclusiveness. "To run the country we need to take everyone with us, all together, and I seek your blessings to succeed in this endeavor," he said at one of his massive triumphal celebration rallies. "Brothers, sisters, you have faith in me, and I have faith in you…. The people of this country have given their verdict. This verdict says we have to make the dreams of 1.25 billion people come true. I must work hard."

The key here, as I have written, is that his huge majority means that he cannot work just for BJP interests but will have to make building the economy his primary aim. The BJP's success is the result of massive support from voters—especially the young—who want India to get moving and to put aside their elders' fears of Hindu chauvinism and violence.

The BJP alone, without its allies, won 282 seats, 10 more than the 272 needed for a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. This is the first time that a party has won a majority without needing a coalition since Rajiv Gandhi's Congress party victory in 1984.

It has been widely assumed that coalitions involving smaller and regional parties would be inevitable in India for years to come because the Congress party has been losing its national role for over 20 years and the BJP did not have any chance of building countrywide appeal. Modi has reversed that trend and has made the BJP a party with national reach for the first time. In north India, he has notably defeated caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and has spread the BJP's appeal in the south.

While the Congress party's top working committee was recently shielding Sonia and Rahul Gandhi from blame for its devastating defeat, and rejecting their notional offers of resignation, Modi was meeting his top leaders and allies to try to work out whom to appoint to his cabinet.

He is expected to try to rationalize the functioning of government by setting up two new umbrella ministries for energy and infrastructure that would take in smaller currently uncoordinated ministries. This may also be done in other areas. This might take some time to organize, and there are suggestions that only a small cabinet will be announced at first.

He has a difficult job balancing various interests. Ideally he would like to appoint ministers who can deliver on his promises to ramp up the economy, revive investment and speed up infrastructure construction. Top bureaucrats responding to the leadership of Modi's prime minister's office can do some of that work, but effective ministers are also important.

He has to take into account the ambitions of the right wing of the Sangh Parivar, the umbrella organization for which the BJP is the political arm. Here the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which Modi has belonged to since he was a teenager, is the key organization. It lays down doctrine and, having played a large part in the election campaign by providing thousands of volunteers, will expect to have a role in the government.

Arun Jaitley, who has been the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha (upper house), is being widely tipped to be foreign minister, though till yesterday he was expected to be finance minister. He is close to Modi, but his stock has fallen because, in an attempt to build a political base, he stood for election in the Punjab city of Amritsar and was heavily defeated by the Congress candidate, Captain Amarindar Singh, a former Punjab chief minister and member of the old Patiala maharajah family. Jaitley remains a Rajya Sabha member so can take a ministerial job despite the defeat.

Arun Shourie, a former newspaper editor who was disinvestment and telecoms minister in the last BJP government, has also been mentioned for the finance job—Mumbai's businessmen have been saying he is likely to get the job for several weeks. He is favored by Modi—other possibilities are the defense ministry, which needs a strong reformist cabinet minister, or commerce and industry.

Rajnath Singh, who has been instrumental in paving the way for Modi's ascendancy since he became BJP president in January last year, could be a candidate for a top cabinet post though reports suggest that he will remain party president and maybe become home minister later. If given that post, his earlier experience as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which gave him experience of how states work, could help him persuade them to cooperate in security and other issues.

Sushma Swaraj, who has been leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, would have been sure to get a top post if she had not opposed Modi's becoming the party's prime ministerial candidate—a role she had hoped to get herself. The job she gets will be a test of Modi's willingness to embrace opponents.

Nitin Gadkari, a Maharashtra politician and businessman who was BJP president from 2010 to 2013, is also in line for a key job, possibly on infrastructure, which he handled earlier in his home state. He resigned from the party president's post in January 2013 after the anticorruption Aam Aadmi Party made allegations of illicit deals concerning his Purti group of agricultural and power businesses.

Modi also needs to find a spot for Amit Shah, a tough political ally in Gujarat who managed the highly successful election campaign for him in Uttar Pradesh. He might become minister in the prime minister's office so he could make sure Modi's plans are implemented.

Finally Modi has to somehow accommodate L.K. Advani—the party's top veteran leader, who had hoped to become prime minister even though he is 86—as well as Murli Manohar Joshi, another veteran leader. One possibility mooted in the media is that Advani would become the speaker of the Lok Sabha.

One key appointment to watch will be whether an RSS activist is made the human resources development minister and thus be able to organize rewriting of textbooks and infiltration of university organizations. Some reports suggest Shushma Swaraj might be given this ministry.

Completing these appointments might take till the weekend. They are important because Modi needs to ensure that the quality and strength of his first cabinet, and the ministerial organization, to support his claim that he can cut through India's problems and boost economic growth.

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at

IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India)