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No clarity on PM’s deputy

New Delhi, July 9: Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not designate a number two to officiate in his absence like his predecessors Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The question of who would preside will arise when Modi will be out of India from July 13 to July 17 to attend the BRICS summit in Brazil.

It was assumed that home minister Rajnath Singh could fill in for Modi. Rajnath has been named deputy leader of the BJP parliamentary party, which Modi helms. He is also number two on the list of ministers, according to the cabinet secretariat’s website.

Rajnath was the first to take oath on May 26 after Modi. At cabinet meetings, he sits next to Modi. Lastly, the appointments committee for the cabinet comprises the Prime Minister and the home minister.

A well-placed source in the government, however, said it could not be assumed that Rajnath was “automatically” Modi’s deputy. “There is no clarity on the issue. My sense is the Prime Minister will leave it as it is.”

There is no hard-and-fast rule that a Prime Minister has to designate a number two to carry out his responsibilities in his absence. Convention has it that a Prime Minister, if he so chooses, leaves a note with the cabinet secretary on who would chair a cabinet meeting if one is required to be convened while he is away.

Manmohan Singh never designated a number two, prompting L.K. Advani to once deride him for causing ambiguity. Advani expediently forgot that his Prime Minister, Vajpayee, did the same.

In October 2000, when Vajpayee was wheeled into a Mumbai hospital for more than a fortnight to have a knee replaced, he moved his secretariat to the seventh floor of Breach Candy Hospital, complete with phones, fax machines and computers. His aides correctly argued that the Constitution was silent on a number two.

Pramod Mahajan, who was I&B minister then, said that since Vajpayee had not gone into a coma, he was in a position to convene a cabinet meeting, if occasioned, “within seconds”.

Few in the BJP or the NDA bought Mahajan’s explanation. The “real” reason, they claimed, was that Vajpayee couldn’t decide who his deputy should be: Advani, his home minister, or George Fernandes, his defence minister.

In Modi’s government, Arun Jaitley handles two key portfolios: defence and finance. He was slated to travel to Brazil but has opted out. In the ruling establishment, it is common knowledge that Jaitley enjoys Modi’s trust.

In the Vajpayee regime, the issue was settled when Advani was designated as the deputy Prime Minister.

Rajiv Gandhi had three colleagues who could make the cut: P.V. Narasimha Rao, R. Venkataraman and N.D. Tiwari. His “official” choice was Rao but, behind the scenes, home minister and the man for all seasons, Buta Singh, called the shots. Modi apparently doesn’t have his Buta Singh in the government yet.