In the whirring, captivating imagery of intoxicating power and command that prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah exude, there is a new third person that seems to crowd the picture these days. And it’s none other than former Uttar Pradesh strongman and the present defence minister, the ever-congenial Rajnath Singh.
The 69-year-old Thakur from Chandauli, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, has been seen flanking Modi, absolutely and assuredly in the past few weeks, ever since the Covid-19 storm hit the nation with its deadly ferocity and repercussions.
For starters, it was not Shah but Singh who was appointed by Modi to head a group of ministers tasked to monitor and review the national Covid-19 situation. On March 27, Modi formed this high-level committee of 15 ministers from crucial ministries to review, prepare and coordinate the smooth flow and availability of essential supplies, from food to petroleum, all over the country during the national lockdown.
The group was formed in addition to one chaired by health minister Harsh Vardhan, an economic task force led by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and an empowered committee for scientific response chaired by Niti-Aayog member Dr Vinod Paul and principal scientific advisor K Vijay Raghavan.
As defence minister, Singh was already meeting chiefs of the armed forces and ministry officials two days after Modi announced the 21-day national lockdown on March 24, to prepare and provide all required assistance to the civilian administration. This assistance includes beds in military hospitals, setting up of temporary hospitals, and organising medicines.
Additionally, the Defence Research and Development Organisation was tasked with manufacturing and providing sanitisers and masks to police personnel and other officials, while the Ordnance Factory Board was asked to ramp up production of masks, bodysuits, and ventilators. The Indian Air Force had already made several sorties to evacuate Indian nationals from countries like Japan, China and Iran. The armed forces provided various quarantine facilities in locations like Manesar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Mumbai.
A week before, on March 21, Singh had appealed to the people to make Modi’s Janta curfew a success by staying home, and had also assured the nation of his ministry’s preparedness in tackling the pandemic.
Singh swung into his new assignment as head of the group of ministers with gusto. Two days after his meeting with defence ministry officials and heads of defence public sector and military organisations, he chaired the group at his residence. The meeting took a comprehensive review of essential and food commodities, petroleum products, and the mass exodus of migrants that has become a government-made human disaster.
It was attended by Singh’s Cabinet colleagues, including Shah, consumer and food affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan, civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar, and women and child development minister Smriti Irani, while railways minister Piyush Goyal joined from Mumbai through video conference.
Singh’s emerging status was spotlighted by the prime minister himself when Modi called for a video-conference with state chief ministers on April 2, to discuss ways to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Flanked by Shah and Singh on either side with the requisite social distancing, along with senior bureaucrats, Modi questioned the chief ministers on contact tracing, migrant movements, suggestions for a staggered pullout of the lockdown, and spreader cluster groups.
The following day, on April 3, within days of Singh chairing the group of ministers, yet another review meeting was called. This time, it was co-chaired by Singh and Shah at the former’s residence. The meeting took stock of the number of Covid-19 cases, and reviewed steps taken to control the pandemic at the time. This time, it was physically attended only by a skeletal team, including Javadekar, Irani and Paswan.
However, on April 7, Singh summoned his high-powered team again to his residence. It was attended by Sitharaman and Goel, also members, apart from Shah and the rest. The meeting took cognisance of the huge farming crisis looming before the government because of the lockdown, and discussed the necessity of easing harvesting, smoothening supply lines from farm to markets, and the procurement and transportation of crops. Sitharaman also discussed her plans for farmer loans, pricing, subsidies, etc.
On April 8, the prime minister called a video conferencing meeting from his residence with parliamentary floor leaders, to discuss the possibility of an extension of the national lockdown, apart from the economic impact of the lockdown on state revenues, an economic package to states, and whether a calibrated approach to withdraw the lockdown was possible. While Modi interacted with party representatives like the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, the Biju Janata Dal’s Pinaki Mishra and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Danish Ali, the meeting was physically attended by both Shah and Singh. However, Singh-Shah were not present during Modi’s video interaction with chief ministers on April 11.
So, how did Rajnath Singh, the convivial and genial leader, rise to such eminence?
Singh was one of the few “Gen Ex” leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party from the Vajpayee-Advani coterie who has managed to stay on in the Cabinet, holding the star portfolios of first home, and now defence. Otherwise, juniors got more significant ministries. Meanwhile, Venkaiah Naidu was made vice-president, Nitin Gadkari was handed the ministry of transport and highways. There was also, of course, the exit of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley with their untimely deaths.
Two decades ago, Singh was no pushover. He was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after he engineered a split within the BSP, with whom the BJP had a power sharing agreement. He was already a union minister in the National Democratic Alliance government led by Vajpayee in 1999; and he became a go-to man for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Singh wielded importance and clout when he was the BJP president. He held the position first in December 2005 when he succeeded LK Advani, after the latter was forced by the RSS to resign with his “Mohammed Jinnah is secular” remark. Singh held the position till December 2009. He stepped in again as party president in January 2013, to take over from a disgraced Gadkari who was asked to resign on corruption charges.
It could not have been more fortuitous for Singh, as it was the time that Modi was steamrolling his way through the party to stake claim as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election. It was Singh who nominated Modi’s candidature, and he served as party president till July 2014, after which Shah took over from him.
It remains to be seen whether Modi will continue to hold a smattering of that appreciation of a time gone before.