View: Amit Shah’s likely entry into finance ministry to mark a big power shift

Unlike Jaitley, Shah has run a bank and turned it around. So, one can expect a wave-making budget.

View: Amit Shah’s likely entry into finance ministry to mark a big power shift
Two big recusals, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, both for reasons of health, paved the way for major changes in portfolios in Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. The irony lies in the fact that both Jaitley and Sushma were seen as potential rivals and claimants to the top job in case the BJP fell short on numbers in 2014. But Modi made sure that didn’t happen. The verdict of 2019 has put paid to any BJP politician harbouring hopes of a hung verdict, where someone other than Modi could have had a shot at No 1.

Team Modi 2.0 marks a clear power-shift below the level of Prime Minister, with Amit Shah, who is expected to replace Jaitley in the finance ministry, now likely to position himself as No 2. Shah is clearly a claimant to the top job if and when Modi moves aside. He will be hoping to show that his capabilities are not restricted to the ballot box and panna pramukhs.

The oath-taking order, which put Rajnath Singh ahead of Shah, and Nitin Gadkari just after him, indicates the broader hierarchy after the exit of Jaitley and Swaraj. Modi and Shah represent the force that built BJP into the central pole of Indian politics; the other two, Singh and Gadkari, represent the backroom power of the Sangh Parivar, which steps in if and when a power vacuum arises.


A big caveat: Given the exit of two big names in Jaitley and Swaraj, one wonders if there has been any net gain in talent beyond Shah and former Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar. Suresh Prabhu has been inexplicably dropped. Quite clearly, Modi evaluates his worth differently from Vajpayee. And one minister who was not known for achieving anything in particular, Sadananda Gowda, remains in the cabinet.

The inclusion of Jaishankar indicates that when Modi looks for lateral inductions, he prefers to go with tried and tested bureaucrats. Hardeep Puri and RK Singh, two other former bureaucrats who were inducted in Team Modi 1.0, have been retained, and so has former army chief, Gen VK Singh. Jaishankar played a key role along with NSA Ajit Doval in ending the eyeball-to-eyeball with China over Doklam in 2017. As a former ambassador to the US, Jaishankar, if he comes in as External Affairs Minister, is well-placed to deal with the uncertainties that came bundled with Donald Trump.

The big change – the induction of Shah -- has the potential to up-end many power equations, both within the Modi government, and outside. Unlike his predecessor, Jaitley, who did not have much of a finance or business background, Shah has actually run a (cooperative) bank and turned it around; he has an acute understanding of the markets, and the capacity to focus on several things at the same time. So, one thing one can expect is a budget that makes waves. Another crucial difference between Jaitley and Shah is that the latter has an eye for detail, while the former was happy to leave it to the bureaucracy to fill in the blanks after the broad policy was enunciated. Shah is likely to be more hands-on at the finance ministry than Jaitley, and given his double clout – in the party and government, and standing as Modi’s closest confidant – the bureaucracy will know that they can’t run rings around him.
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If the rest of the cabinet picks sound underwhelming, the answers are not far to seek. Consider first the supply side of ministerial aspirants, given the nature of the verdict, where the BJP alone has 303 Lok Sabha MPs and its allies the remaining 50. These numbers rule out too many lateral inductions, for every lateral induction means one less berth to offer to party hopefuls and allies. One ally, the Janata Dal (U) has already opted out of the first stage of cabinetformation as it was not given enough posts by Modi and Shah.

Consider also the geographical spread of the BJP’s new political footprint, where it has grown eastwards (West Bengal, Odisha and the North-East), and made an exceptionally strong showing in north and west India, apart from Karnataka in the south. No Prime Minister can afford to ignore specific demands for higher representation from the states where the BJP has won big.

In sum, the two big take-outs of Team Modi 2.0 are these: one, the cabinet is no longer unipolar, despite Modi’s supremo status. Shah adds new ballast to the team, both from the party angle and governance capabilities. Two, if Shah gets finance, one can expect him to use his heft to revive animal spirits in the economy. He did that in politics, and one cannot presume he can’t repeat the trick with economics.

(The author is Editorial Director of Swarajya)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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