Prime Minister Narendra Modi reshuffled his cabinet this week, with perhaps the most prominent changeover being at the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Dr Harsh Vardhan resigned in advance of the cabinet reshuffle and has been replaced by Mansukh L. Mandaviya.
Mandaviya replaced Vardhan as Minister of Health and Family Welfare, as well as D. V. Sadananda Gowda as Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers. He previously served under Gowda as Minister of State in the same department. Vardhan resigned not only his portfolio of Health and Family Welfare, but also his portfolios of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences – being replaced by Jitendra Singh, his predecessor in both posts.
Vardhan returned to the Health Ministry following the 2019 general election, having earlier held the post over a five-month period after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi came to power in 2014. The cabinet reshuffle comes amidst mounting criticism over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As The Hindustan Times reports, “Harsh Vardhan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been criticised by the opposition, though on several occasions PM Modi praised his proactive role in fighting the pandemic. The health minister, who was also elected in WHO’s executive board, was at loggerheads with states and state ministers who criticised the government’s vaccine policy.” His successor, Mandaviya, represents Gujarat in the Rajya Sabha.
As The Indian Express reported, Vardhan’s “departure is one of the strongest signals on the handling of the ferocious second COVID-19 wave — to the government’s detractors, it is an admission of its failure; and to its supporters, a much-needed course correction to reassure the country.” The report accurately notes Vardhan’s statement in March this year that India was in the “endgame” of the pandemic – before a violent second wave crushed the country anew after the crises witnessed last year.
The Express report asserts that “Harsh Vardhan, on his part, continued to defend the government by targeting political opponents who criticised the handling of the pandemic. Attacking Opposition-ruled states, he asked them to take appropriate measures and apply the lessons that the nation had learned the past year from its handling of the pandemic.”
Despite Vardhan’s criticism of opposition leaders, he has won support from some corners. Jairam Ramesh of the Indian National Congress (INC) claimed Vardhan had been scapegoated for “monumental failures at the highest level — nowhere else.” INC general secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted that “National Disaster Management Authority is responsible for criminal mis-management of #COVID19. It is headed by the Prime Minister. Will PM take responsibility for his failures? Or will PM only make Dr. Harshvardhan the scapegoat for PM’s failures?”
Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, said “do you really think they are serious about governance? All meetings on COVID were chaired by the Prime Minister. Now they are making the Health Minister a victim. Had they been serious, [the] second wave of COVID would not have happened.”
It remains to be seen as to whether Vardhan’s departure from the Health Ministry and consequent change in leadership will yield results. As the country continues to battle the pandemic, uncertainty is the only certainty – and only time will tell as to whether the cabinet reshuffle will prove to be a game-changer in battling the crisis.