By Aftab Ahmed and Nigam Prusty
NEW DELHI (Reuters) -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.
Official sources said Vardhan had to pay the political price for the government’s struggles to cope with a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections.
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.
The reshuffle also came after the defeat of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in April elections in key West Bengal state.
“If it was really about the COVID-19 mismanagement, was (Vardhan) solely responsible? Definitely not,” Rijo M. John, health economist and a professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in the southern city of Kochi, said on Twitter.
“The buck actually stops with the PM himself,” John said.
IT MINISTER LOSES HIS JOB
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 U.S. social media giants to comply with the laws of the country.
No reasons were provided for Prasad’s dismissal though an industry source familiar with the thinking of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter expected them to welcome the change at the ministry.
“A reset always helps,” said the source. “It so far appeared there was lack of conversation.”
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 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.”
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.
(Additional reporting by Neha Arora and Aditya Kalra; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Timothy Heritage, Kirsten Donovan)