New DelhiIndian 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.
Indian Prime Minister fires health minister and 11 others as Covid crisis lingers
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.