|(From top) Smriti Irani, Arun Jaitley and Nirmala Sitharaman. (PTI and AFP)
New Delhi, May 27: SAN, not the Sangh, is the talk of the town.
The responsibilities of Smriti Irani, Arun Jaitley and Nirmala Sitharaman in the Narendra Modi ministry are dominating conversations in the power and party corridors of the capital.
“The talk is all about Smriti, Arun and Nirmala,” a BJP office-bearer said.
Smriti, who doubled as a spokesperson when she headed the BJP’s women’s wing, has been allocated human resource development with full cabinet rank while Nirmala, a designated spokesperson, has been assigned commerce and industry with independent charge.
Jaitley has been given finance and the temporary charge of defence, which account for two of the elite quartet of ministries.
Jaitley said defence was an additional charge and a full-time minister would take over shortly. BJP sources said the full-time incumbent could be Arun Shourie, billed as a Modi favourite but passed over in the first round because of a covert campaign within the BJP that alleged he was an “outsider” and given to “abusing” party leaders.
It is understood that Modi was “not amused” with the back-to-back interviews Shourie gave to news channels in which he reportedly tried to make a case for his inclusion.
“There is no offer,” Shourie said in reply to a question. “There were stories that said there was an offer that I rejected because of problems in my family. I do not know where such stories emanated from.”
The other name in circulation was that of Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar, liked by Modi for his “integrity” and “no-nonsense” attitude. Sources said the issue with Parrikar’s relocation was seeking a replacement who, like him, would balance the religious equations in Goa and keep it “inclusive”.
The “fine print” in the texts and sub-texts of Modi’s council was Smriti’s governmental debut as a cabinet minister mandated with looking after HRD, a critical department as close to the Prime Minister’s development agenda as to the schemes of his ideological parent, the RSS.
The other “fine print” in the text, sources said, was the way commerce had been parcelled off to Nirmala.
Modi had been saying trade and commerce should ideally guide diplomacy. There was a plan to club the commerce and foreign ministries.
Earlier this year, when he spoke at the India Economic Convention in New Delhi, Modi had said the foreign ministry should reinvent itself and shake off the old-style functioning overseas missions were used to.
“It seems to me that our overseas missions’ primary task is to file long reports, their job seems to be to gather information about their host country, write political and security analyses about the country’s old friends and new. These despatches are sent to the headquarters where they are read by the relevant divisions,” Modi had said.
Twenty-first-century diplomacy, he had emphasised, should be more alive to issues like trade facilitation and promotion of Indian business abroad that, he added, could act as force multipliers for India’s economy.
“It is clear that in choosing Nirmala as his commerce minister, Modi will implement his ideas on diplomacy and foreign relations through her and let (foreign minister) Sushma Swaraj handle the other aspects,” a BJP insider said.
Nirmala, an economist by qualification and training, came into the BJP in 2010, worked as a spokesperson but never asked to contest an election — circumstances that wouldn’t have assured a ministerial berth to her peers. Modi and Jaitley rated her “understanding of policy matters and competence” quite highly and worked on her induction.
Nirmala had earlier been considered for a Rajya Sabha membership from Gujarat or Rajasthan, but Sushma had reportedly shot down the proposal. A face-off had erupted last February, shortly after Sushma, as Lok Sabha Opposition leader, had batted for Telangana’s creation before the Andhra bifurcation bill was passed.
On her Twitter site, Nirmala had re-posted a tweet that said: “If only Shushma (sic) had stood for Seemandhra in LS just like Venkaiah and Jaitley did today.”
Sushma retaliated by posting another tweet that said: “With spokespersons like nsitharaman we don’t need enemies.”
Nirmala capped the Twitter duel by claiming “No differences”.
Sushma’s unchallenged status as the BJP’s unrivalled woman leader has hit a Smriti-Nirmala wall. Like these two ladies, Sushma too began her career in the BJP as a spokesperson. “Her biggest asset is she is resilient and has survived several ups and downs, usually created by her male colleagues,” a source said.
Sushma launched her innings as foreign minister by being part of the deliberations that Modi had with heads of Saarc nations. Modi dominated the talks.
Sushma is among the handful who made it to Modi’s council despite not starting off as a favourite.
Sources said others he would have “ideally” not liked to be around were Ananth Kumar who, like Sushma, had spoken out against Modi’s ascendancy till the last. Ananth, Sushma and Ravi Shankar Prasad were the three recommendations to come from veteran L.K. Advani.
While there were no issues with Prasad, Ananth was “eventually” taken in on the understanding that he would not get a portfolio of his choice. Chemicals and fertilisers that he eventually got was certainly not to Ananth’s liking, the sources said.
In the categorisation of “favourites” (of Modi and Jaitley) versus the others, those included in the first slot were Dharmendra Pradhan, Prakash Javadekar and Piyush Goyal. Pradhan and Goyal were relative newcomers to Delhi. Like Nirmala, their “rise” too was the envy of many in the BJP.
Like Sushma, Smriti and Nirmala, Javadekar heralded his entry as a spokesperson and served as one for years until he became a Rajya Sabha MP. He has been served up information and broadcasting, environment, forest and climate change and parliamentary affairs.