As Prime Minister Narendra Modi held consultations with economists on Thursday ahead of the Budget on February 1, a notable absentee was Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The minister was also missing from a meeting on Monday between the Prime Minister and top industrialists.
PM Modi, in the meeting with some 40 economists, industry leaders, experts and bankers, spoke on achieving India's $5 trillion economy target, according to news agency IANS. Investments, credit growth, boosting consumption and reforms were reportedly discussed in the two-hour meeting.
Ms Sitharaman did attend a pre-budget consultation, but at the BJP headquarters, with party leaders and office-bearers.
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. pic.twitter.com/sUi5Kjwons— BJP (@BJP4India) January 9, 2020
Pre-budget meetings minus the Finance Minister set up a new trending debate on social media. "Here's a suggestion, next budget meeting, consider inviting the Finance Minister," the Congress sneered, using the hashtag #FindingNirmala.
Ms Sitharaman's office responded to some tweets, like those by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
"Sir, the minister has already met economists on 20th December 2019, as a part of the pre-budget consultations," tweeted the Finance Minister's office, along with an official press release and a photo of Ms Sitharaman at the meeting.
Same question again: https://t.co/QhZQtBLRwv. What's going on here? Finance Minister indisposed?— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) January 9, 2020
Ms Sitharaman's office also tweeted the dates of nine meetings she had held with various sectors in December. "Sir, the minister has already met industrialists, experts, and economists during the pre-budget consultations. Also, she has been meeting and interacting with representatives and stakeholders from various industries for many months now," said the tweet.
Sir, the minister has already met industrialists, experts, and economists during the pre-budget consultations.— NSitharamanOffice (@nsitharamanoffc) January 9, 2020
Also, she has been meeting and interacting with representatives and stakeholders from various industries for many months now. https://t.co/0jqzqlaCrTpic.twitter.com/00jYixrVc3
The Finance Minister's office said she could not cancel the scheduled meeting at the BJP office and had informed the Prime Minister's office of her absence at the consultation with economists. Sources said only after advice from the Prime Minister, she attended one meeting and skipped the other.
"Nirmala ji was not on vacation. She was busy attending another meeting. The parallel meet was pre scheduled at the BJP Headquarters. Suggesting that she was excluded from this meeting is political notoriety," a source close to Ms Sitharaman said.
PM Modi's meetings are seen to signal that he is taking charge of the economy after the projected growth slipped to just 5% this year.
Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari and Rural Development Minister Narendra Tomar were present at the meeting.