Jittery Jaitley on overdrive

BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has forced out in the open a question that was being whispered in the corridors of power: who is the finance minister of India?

By J.P. Yadav
  • Published 22.06.18
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Arun Jaitley

New Delhi: BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has forced out in the open a question that was being whispered in the corridors of power: who is the finance minister of India?

"Either you are the finance minister or you are not the finance minister," Swamy told BloombergQuint in an interview on Wednesday, referring to newspaper reports describing Piyush Goyal as "interim Union finance minister".

Swamy went on to flag the confusion in the government. "The website of the Prime Minister's Office says Piyush Goyal is the finance minister, and (Arun) Jaitley is minister without portfolio. However, the finance ministry's website says Jaitley is the finance minister," he said.

Goyal was "temporarily assigned" additional charge of the finance ministry on May 14, the day Jaitley underwent a kidney transplant. "During the period of indisposition of Shri Arun Jaitley, minister; the portfolios of minister of finance and minister of corporate affairs held by him be temporarily assigned to Shri Piyush Goyal, in addition to his existing portfolios," a communiqué from the President's office had said.

Swamy's comments come in the backdrop of Jaitley, who is minister without portfolio, announcing the resignation of chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian through a Facebook post, holding a video-conference with finance ministry officials and churning out blogs on politics and the economy.

Jaitley's strenuous efforts to show he remains engaged with the affairs of the ministry and the party even as he recuperates have led many to wonder whether the 65-year-old leader was feeling jittery.

Importance given to next-generation leaders, such as Goyal and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, has further fuelled such talk.

A parallel is being drawn between Jaitley's case and that of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, who had undergone a kidney transplant in December 2016 but was not divested of her responsibilities. She continued to hold the foreign affairs portfolio even as she recuperated.

The unofficial argument by BJP managers is that the finance ministry is too important to be handled by "inexperienced" junior ministers. Not many are ready to buy this argument and are pointing to whispers of Goyal being made finance minister long before Jaitley fell ill.

Jaitley was discharged from hospital on June 4 and is likely to be fully fit to take charge sometime in August. On the day he returned home, he held a video-conference with top bureaucrats in the finance ministry. He has written half a dozen blogs since, attacking the Congress and Rahul Gandhi and also holding forth on the economy. On Wednesday, he announced the resignation of CEA Subramanian.

Swamy was quick to point out the resignation should have gone to Goyal, not Jaitley.#"The way Jaitley has been blogging shows he is feeling restless and somewhere also reflects a sense of fear," a senior BJP leader said, underlining that he seemed to be conveying that he was "active and relevant".

This leader pointed to fears in party circles that many more seniors could find themselves pushed to the "Margdarshak Mandal", like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, should Narendra Modi return to power in 2019.

Goyal, seen as a leader promoted in the party by Jaitley, visits the finance minister's office in North Block but does not occupy the minister's chair. He works while seated on a sofa in the room, according to sources.

"Goyal is behaving like Bharat, the younger brother of Ram, but in Kalyug how long will the role be played is a big question," a leader said.