In what is likely to be his final reshuffle before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave railways minister Piyush Goyal additional charge of finance and punished controversial information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani by taking away the plum post, leaving her with only textiles. Her deputy, Rajyavardhan Rathore, has now been given full charge of the I&B ministry.
Monday’s shuffle was prompted by Arun Jaitley’s successful kidney transplant surgery, which means he will need an extended period of recuperation.
However, handing finance to Goyal is seen as an unusual, even unprecedented move as he was one BJP’s treasurer. Authoritative sources say that this would perhaps be the first ever instance in any government of an erstwhile party treasurer tasked with raising party funds getting charge of the Ministry of Finance.
Irani has been punished, say sources, for her clumsy and authoritarian handling of the sensitive I&B portfolio, especially her ill-fated circular on fake news and her run in with the RSS-backed chief of Prasar Bharti, A. Surya Prakash – when she punished Doordarshan by stopping staff salaries for three months. President Ramnath Kovind had also formally conveyed his displeasure to the PMO over the mishandling of the national awards function held recently. Irani finally paid the price for upsetting the president and the RSS simultaneously.
In Goyal’s case, sources say that Modi was aware of the adverse optics of the move even earlier and had decided to keep the finance ministry with the PMO for the eight weeks it would take Jaitley to get back in to office after recuperating from his surgery.
Unfortunately for Modi, his trusted Gujarat cadre appointee, finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia, who was supposed to mind the store while Jaitley recovered, went off on an unusually long yoga retreat (May 5 to May 20). The bureaucratic grapevine says this was because he was not made cabinet secretary. Whatever the reason, he effectively scuppered Modi’s plans.
It is learnt that the opposition’s taunts mocking Modi for leaving the crucial finance ministry headless, and huge pressure from a giant industrial house, made Modi opt for Goyal.
It may be recalled that when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj underwent a renal transplant, Modi had not given any other minister additional charge of her portfolio, preferring to keep it to himself. Sources say that Jaitley had been given a similar assurance.
Even earlier, during the UPA government, Manmohan Singh had held charge of finance for a month when Pranab Mukherjee became president and P. Chidambaram was still to take over.
The Goyal move is also unusual as Jaitley has not attended office for nearly a month and a half and even before that was unable to be in office for the full day as he was unwell. What suddenly changed in the past 48 hours, ask senior BJP ministers.
While Goyal has been rewarded despite allegations of serial conflicts of interest, Irani has paid the price for her high-visibility conflicts with authority figures in the Sangh power structure.
With 12 months to go for elections, it remains to be seen when and if Jaitley manages a comeback and exactly how the finance ministry is handled with major scandals such as the Nirav Modi Ponzi scheme, which defrauded the second largest state run bank Punjab National Bank of ₹14,000 crore, the troubled GST roll out, zero export growth for the past four years, the after effects of demonetisation still dogging the economy, the stressed debts of the state run banks and virtually no new jobs being created.
Sources say that along with party president Amit Shah, Goyal is the main entry point for the huge funding the BJP manages to get from corporate backers – funding, which according to official accounts, outstrips every other party in assets. Balancing that role with being finance minister will be a challenge.