Nirmala not seen, Piyush seen at meet
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday chaired a meeting with industry experts and economists amid bleak growth forecasts but it was the absence of one person at the brainstorming session that stood out.
The absence of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a JNU alumna, was all the more conspicuous as Modi had by his side several key ministers, including home minister Amit Shah, commerce and railway minister Piyush Goyal, highway minister Nitin Gadkari and rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar.
Goyal, a former interim finance minister, is seen in the corridors of power as a strong claimant for the post.
The BJP sought to dismiss any suggestions that Sitharaman had been sidelined by uploading pictures of her at another meeting. But the venue and the nature of her meeting only served to shovel more fuel into questions why the finance minister was not present at the higher-profile event graced by the Prime Minister and the home minister.
Sitharaman was closeted with party leaders at the BJP headquarters while Modi brainstormed at the government think tank Niti Aayog.
The finance minister, according to the party, was getting feedback and suggestions for the upcoming Union budget — due to be presented on February 1 — from different party groups.
“FM Smt. @nsitharaman having pre-budget consultation meetings with Party’s national office-bearers, spokespersons, Morcha members, departments, publications and think-tanks at BJP headquarters in New Delhi,” the party tweeted with the multiple pictures.
Many noted Sitharaman’s absence from the Niti Aayog meeting, including Congress leader Shashi Tharoor who took to Twitter.
“Where is the finance minister? Or has the Duo forgotten they have one?” Tharoor said in a tweet that started trending.
“Same question again… What’s going on here? Finance Minister indisposed?” he added, attaching pictures of the Niti Aayog meeting.
Sitharaman maintained silence but her office replied to Tharoor’s tweet, pointing out that the minister had met economists last month. “Sir, the minister has already met economists on 20 th Dec 2019, as a part of the pre-budget consultations,” the tweet by @nsitharamanoffc said.
A picture of last month’s meeting was attached with the tweeted reply.
The clarification failed to check the ripples in the political corridors with many wondering whether Sitharaman would be edged out of the finance ministry before or after the budget.
Goyal’s presence at the Niti Aayog meeting set off whispers in political circles. Goyal has manned the finance ministry twice in the first stint of the Modi government. He had filled in for then finance minister Arun Jaitley who was indisposed and then presented the pre-general election budget.
“Everybody knows that Piyush is one of the big favourites of the top two leaders,” a BJP leader said.
The leader pointed out that Sitharaman has been under fire over the economy. The Central Statistics Office on Tuesday said the economy was expected to grow by 5 per cent this financial year, the slowest since 2008-09.
In party circles, Sitharaman has been known to be a “disciple” of Jaitley, and many claim it was the late leader who had pushed for her as his replacement in the finance minister after he refused to join the second Modi government on health grounds.
Sitharaman had replaced Jaitley in the defence ministry too in the first Modi government.
The usually feisty Sitharaman has of late been lying low. On January 5 after the JNU attack, she had tweeted: “Horrifying images from JNU — the place I know & remember was one for fierce debates & opinions but never violence. I unequivocally condemn the events of today. This govt, regardless of what has been said the past few weeks, wants universities to be safe spaces for all students.”