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India's PM Modi addresses a gathering before flagging off the "Dandi March", in Ahmedabad

India’s prime minister drops 12 Cabinet ministers in massive reshuffle

NEW DELHI (AP) — In a massive Cabinet revamp, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped 12 senior Cabinet ministers on Wednesday and inducted a younger team aimed at refurbishing his government’s image after widespread criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan, whose response to the epidemic came under close examination, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Law and Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar were among those who resigned hours ahead of the reshuffle.

Prasad was involved in a bitter row with Twitter over India’s new internet regulations, which digital activists say could curtail online speech and privacy. He has been replaced by Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Mansukh Mandaviya replaces Dr. Vardhan as the new Health Minister, says a statement by the president’s office. He is from Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

Fifteen Cabinet ministers and 28 junior ministers were sworn in by President Kovind at a ceremony in the presidential palace on Wednesday. Eight junior ministers were elevated to Cabinet rank.

Modi retained Home Minister Amit Shah, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Other key portfolios were given to Jyotiraditya Scindia (Civil Aviation), Kiren Rijiju (Law and Justice), Hardeep Singh Puri (Petroleum and Natural Gas), Bhupender Yadav (Environment), Anurag Singh Thakur (Information and Broadcasting) and Dharmendra Pradhan (Education).

It is the first Cabinet reshuffle since Modi was returned to power for a second term in 2019.

The government is facing increasing criticism for its handling of the pandemic.

Vardhan, who was in charge of the Health Ministry as well as the Science and Technology Ministry, led the response to the pandemic.

“In one clean sweep, you have senior ministers being removed. The government has admitted by these changes that it has failed miserably in handling the pandemic as it should have,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a well-known journalist and political analyst.

More than half of India’s reported 400,000 coronavirus deaths — the third most of any country — have occurred over the past two months as the delta variant of the virus tore through the nation and overwhelmed its already strained health system.

New cases are on the decline after exceeding 400,000 a day in May, but authorities are preparing for another possible wave and are trying to ramp up vaccinations.

The reshuffle also came after the defeat of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in April elections in key West Bengal state, a test of its handling of the pandemic.

Modi will face another major test of his popularity in legislative 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’s fate in 2024 national elections.