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Amit Shah gets home, Rajnath Singh defence

Sitharaman, 59, was defence minister in the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and replaces Arun Jaitley, who ruled himself out of Modi’s new team citing health reasons.

india Updated: Jun 01, 2019 00:03 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Amit Shah,Rajnath Singh,Defence minister
Amit Shah with Rajnath Singh(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed the allocation of portfolios in his new government on Friday, the key appointments reflecting both the newly acquired bench strength of the ruling coalition and his confidence in the ability of the core members of his team to hit the ground running and measure up to the challenges ahead.

Modi, 68, who presided over his first Cabinet meeting in the evening, handed the four crucial portfolios of home to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah, defence to Rajnath Singh, finance and corporate affairs to Nirmala Sitharaman and external affairs to former foreign secretary S Jaishankar, the surprise inclusion in the Cabinet lineup.

Sitharaman, 59, was defence minister in the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and replaces Arun Jaitley, who ruled himself out of Modi’s new team citing health reasons.

Rajnath Singh, 67, was home minister in Modi 1.0 and Jaishankar, 64, comes in for Sushma Swaraj, who was omitted from the lineup

In another key appointment, Modi named Piyush Goyal, who was railway minister in the previous government , as the new commerce minister, replacing Suresh Prabhu, another significant omission. He also retained railways.

The appointments reflect the fact that this NDA government doesn’t suffer from a dearth of talent — a charge it often faced in its previous incarnation because of the surfeit of portfolios handed over to a handful of politicians including, at one point, both finance and defence to Jaitley.

All five ministers face significant challenges in the months ahead and have their task cut out at the start of the second term of the Modi government, which won a landslide mandate in the April-May general elections, and whose composition reflects the Prime Miinister’s confidence that they will be up to the task.

Shah has to deal with Kashmir, where state assembly elections are due after the fall of the Mehbooba Mufti government in June 2018 when the BJP walked out of a coalition government.

Rajnath Singh will have to oversee the induction of the Rafale jet fighters, whose purchase became controversial because of Opposition allegations of corruption, ensure that the modernisation of the armed forces continues apace and India is ready for any future aggression.

“Both external and internal security needed a fresh approach with a certain amount of continuity. That will come in with Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh as the home minister and defence minister,” said Sidharth Mishra, president of the Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice.

Sitharaman has to tackle declining economic growth, ensure continued investment inflows and generate jobs. She is the first full-fledged woman finance minister of India. Late former prime minister Indira Gandhi held charge of finance as an additional portfolio between 1970 and 1971.

Sitharaman’s appointment as finance minister was unexpected, observers said.

“It is a big surprise and very unexpected news,” said Yogesh Nagaonkar, founder and chief executive of Rowan Capital Advisors in Mumbai. “The initial expectation of the market from her would be to see how she addresses liquidity concerns. We need to have good liquidity in the market to achieve growth.”

Jaishankar, a former envoy to the United States and China and who was part of a troika with Modi and national security adviser (NDA) Ajit Doval in shaping foreign policy in the early years of the Modi administration, will have to keep relations with both on an even keel and steer the future course of ties with Pakistan.

”The de facto arrangement that existed between the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] and the external affairs ministry when Jaishankar was the secretary of the ministry has now become a de jure agreement,” Mishra said.

Jaishankar, 64, is the second career diplomat to become foreign minister after Natwar Singh, who quit the foreign service to contest elections. Jaishankar’s appointment as minister means the government will have to either nominate him to the Rajya Sabha or he will have to be elected to one of the Houses of Parliament.

“It shows that the prime minister is serious about foreign policy, and secondly, that he is entrusting it in the hands of a professional,” Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, said.

Goyal faces the task of boosting exports to shore up domestic economic growth and avoiding negative fallout on India from the flare-up of trade wars such as the one that has been raging between the US and China. Jaishankar and he will also need to work together to cool trade frictions with the US following repeated criticism by President Donald Trump of what he claims are high Indian tariffs.

In other portfolio allocations, Modi, who in a tweet following Thursday night’s swearing-in ceremony described his new team as “a blend of youthful energy and administrative experience”, kept the road transport ministry with Nitin Gadkari and gave Smriti Irani, who made a mark in the Lok Sabha elections by defeating Rahul Gandhi in the Congress bastion of Amethi, women and child development minister. Irani also retained the textiles ministry she held in the previous government as well.

Former Uttarakhand chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ was appointed human resource development (HRD) minister in place of Prakash Javadekar, who got environment as well as information and broadcasting. Former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, a minister of state with independent charge, also received additional charge of civil aviation apart from housing and urban affairs.

Pokhriyal’s good equation with leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, was seen as one of the key factors behind his inclusion in the Modi government.

Nishank’s appointment as HRD minister sends a signal that the RSS will continue to have a say in the working of the crucial ministry, said Mishra of Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice.

“He is a tactical politician with a certain amount of experience in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. He will be able to withstand pressure from within and outside the parivar,” Mishra said.

Veteran Ravi Shankar Prasad retained law and justice; and electronics and information technology. He also got charge of communications. Harsh Vardhan will be health minister, and Narendra Singh Tomar will oversee agriculture apart from rural development and panchayati raj.

The 25-member Union Cabinet held its first meeting at 5.30 pm on Friday, and in its first decision approved changes in the PM’s Scholarship Scheme under the National Defence Fund to enhanced scholarships for children of police personnel killed in terror or Maoist attacks.

First Published: Jun 01, 2019 00:03 IST