Why Narendra Modi can’t afford to sack India’s finance minister​ Arun Jaitley

The ultimate insider.
The ultimate insider.
Image: EPA/Harish Tyagi
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As the buzz about a possible Cabinet reshuffle gathers momentum, so are suggestions that prime minister Narendra Modi is under growing pressure to move Arun Jaitley out of the crucial finance ministry.

Jaitley’s critics—both inside and outside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—make a strong case for the minister’s removal by pointing out his failure to revitalise the economy, and the charges of financial bungling in the DDCA (Delhi and District Cricket Association) during his tenure as its chief.

While the knives are clearly out for Jaitley, it will not be easy for Modi to drop his high-profile finance minister. In fact, the prime minister can ill-afford to marginalise Jaitley for a variety of reasons.

Having stood by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje when they were in the opposition’s firing line last year for helping Lalit Modi, the prime minister cannot treat Jaitley any differently.

Although an aggressive opposition demanding Swaraj and Raje’s resignation did not allow parliament to function during last year’s monsoon session, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government stood its ground on the plea that if it took any action against the senior BJP leaders, it would be seen as an admission of guilt. The same holds true in Jaitley’s case.

Talent and trust deficit

But more importantly, Modi is constrained from shifting out the finance minister because it is an acknowledged fact that the NDA government faces a serious talent deficit. There are not many senior ministers in the Modi government who can be entrusted with the vital task of reviving the country’s economy.

In addition, there is a far more serious issue of trust deficit. Jaitley has always stood by Modi even when he was under fire after the 2002 Gujarat riots, and was among those who persuaded the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee not to sack him as the Gujarat chief minister. Jaitley was also the first to endorse Modi’s projection as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Among the seniors, Modi does not have confidence in home minister Rajnath Singh’s capabilities, and he certainly does not trust transport minister Nitin Gadkari or Sushma Swaraj while others, including telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, lack the gravitas and grasp of policy matters to take charge of the finance ministry.

Despite the fact that the economy has not picked up at the pace promised by the NDA government when it came to power in 2014, Jaitley remains indispensable for Modi for some more reasons.

The insider

That’s because even after spending 18 months in the capital, Modi is still perceived as an outsider in Delhi’s complex political milieu. Jaitley, on the other hand, is the ultimate Delhiwala, completely at ease in the corridors of power, having assiduously cultivated friends across the political spectrum, judiciary, the media, and the corporate sectors.

For instance, when Modi completed one year in office, Jaitley facilitated a series of informal dinner meetings at his residence with groups of journalists, ensuring that the prime minister was not bombarded with awkward questions.

Known as Modi’s greatest ally after BJP president Amit Shah, the prime minister has come to depend heavily on Jaitley. There are few matters on which the finance minister is not consulted, particularly on legal issues.

The finance minister is fielded to articulate the views of the party and the government in a crisis situation. Whether it is Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the controversial land acquisition bill, the increasing number of farmers’ suicides, or Swaraj’s involvement in the Lalit Modi visa row, Jaitley was called upon to defend the government and his colleagues.

The troubleshooter

Like Pranab Mukherjee, the chief troubleshooter in the previous UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, Jaitley has also been roped in to talk to the opposition whenever there is an impasse in parliament. He is Modi’s best bet for this job given the finance minister’s ties with leaders across the political spectrum—be it Congress seniors like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury , Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav, or Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. More recently, he even travelled to Chennai for a meeting with Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa.

While it is true that Jaitley’s discussions with the opposition parties have not always yielded positive results—he failed to persuade them to support the NDA government’s amended land acquisition Bill and was unable to push through the Goods and Services Tax Bill in the last parliament session—Modi’s choice of candidates for this job is clearly limited. With the opposition having the upper hand in the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley’s role as leader of the House is critical for the government.

“Who else can he pick for this job—Rajnath Singh, Venkaiah Naidu or Swaraj? Unlike Jaitley, none of them has the same equation with the opposition or share the same comfort level with the prime minister,” remarked a senior BJP leader.

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