"Who is the Finance Minister of India?" This is a question that is being asked today by those who have the concern of the nation uppermost in their minds. Arun Jaitley, though minister without portfolio, feels that he is still the Finance Minister and continues to behave like one. His latest gem is that the recent reduction in taxes on some products under the GST is a major economic reform as was, may I add, fixing them at high rates to begin with. Piyush Goyal, who has been given temporary charge of the Finance Ministry, continues to worship the 'Paduka' (footwear) of Jaitley and refuses to function like a full-fledged Finance Minister. In any case, he has too much on his plate already.
The cavalier treatment meted out to the ministry by the Prime Minister from the very beginning is most baffling; so is the manner in which he has treated the allocation of portfolios to his ministers from the start of his government.
The first distribution of portfolios among the ministers of the council was announced by a cabinet secretariat notification on May 27, 2014. Some of the allocations defied logic. First, Arun Jaitley was given charge not only of the Ministry of Finance but also of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and surprisingly, also, the Defence Ministry. Apart from the fact that the Finance Ministry job is more than full-time, the Minister of Finance also sits in judgment over the expenditure proposals of other ministries. A situation was thus created where Arun Jaitley would approve expenditure proposals as Minister of Defence and sit in judgment on them as Minister of Finance. This is the why the Finance Minister should not be given charge of any other ministry. The Defence Ministry could have been easily allotted to any other senior minister like Home Minister Rajnath Singh or External Affairs Minister Shushma Swaraj. Was it lack of confidence in these senior-most ministers that was responsible for this strange arrangement?
The second highlight of the allocation of portfolios was equally surprising. While some ministers of state were given independent charge of some ministries, they were put in subordinate charge of some other ministries. The council of ministers at the centre has generally three levels - cabinet ministers, ministers of state (independent charge) and ministers of state in subordinate charge. It is like having a secretary, additional secretary and joint secretary at the bureaucratic level. You cannot have an additional secretary in one ministry working as joint secretary in another ministry, but this is exactly what the Prime Minister did with his ministers while allocating portfolios. One of many examples: General VK Singh was made Minister of State (independent charge) of the North Eastern Region, he was made Minister of State in subordinate charge in the Ministry of External Affairs. Many of the portfolios assigned to the ministers also had no connection with one another.
The total number of ministers in the first council of ministers was 46. The permissible limit according to the law passed during Vajpayee's prime ministership is 82. The Prime Minister gloated over the fact that he had pruned the size of the council of ministers and this was in line with his slogan of "minimum government, maximum governance".
A little over five months later, he appointed 21 new ministers to his council, thus taking the total to 67. Among the new ministers were four of cabinet rank, three of minister of state (independent charge) rank, and 14 of minister of state rank. Arun Jaitley handed over charge of the Defence Ministry to Manohar Parrikar, but was again given additional charge of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. In July 2016, the Prime Minister again expanded his council of ministers and brought in 20 new ministers, taking in total to 75. The number today is 73 after the resignation of the two TDP ministers. So much for "minimum government, maximum governance". Heads I win, tails you lose.
The game of musical chairs continues in the council of ministers. While some have continued to prosper, others have fallen by the wayside like Rajiv Pratap Rudy or Gade been vastly reduced in importance like Sadanand Gowda. It remains to be seen what happens to Arun Jaitley when he returns to good health.
The new favourite of the Prime Minister appears to be Piyush Goyal. Like Arun Jaitley before him, he is the new superman in the cabinet. He is today in charge of Coal, Railways, and on top of it all, the Minister is Finance and Corporate Affairs. The Department of Disinvestment used to be a full-fledged ministry under Vajpayee. Today, it is one of the departments of the Ministry of Finance.
The Prime Minister has treated the Ministry of Finance shabbily over the last four years in another way also. At the minister of state level in the ministry, Nirmal Sitharaman was replaced by Jayant Sinha after five months. He was replaced eight months later by two ministers of state, Santosh Gangwar and Arjun Ram Meghwal. Earlier, Santosh Gangwar was in independent charge of the Ministry of Textiles, but nobody gave a damn for the fact that he was demoted and made a junior minister in subordinate charge in the Ministry of Finance. Both of them were replaced within 14 months by Shiv Pratap Shukla and P Radha Krishnan, who is also Minister of State for Shipping.
The economic situation both at home and globally is full of uncertainties at present with global trade wars unleashed by President Trump, the complications created by the US sanctions on Russia and Iran, the fluctuations in international crude oil prices, the decline in the value of the rupee against the US dollar etc.
A considerable part of the country is in the grip of drought. Demand and investment has not gathered pace, bank NPAs are not going to go away in a hurry, various sectors of the economy are in distress, specially the agrarian sector, industrial production has recorded a consistent decline over the last six months, inflation has raised its ugly head again and the current account deficit is inching up. The situation calls for a full time and dedicated Finance Minister who will devote his time and energy to these tasks. The Finance Ministry is too important a charge to be assigned to a part-time minister or to someone who is not in the pink of health.
But, does it really matter? Are the Prime Minister and his office not really in charge of every ministry of the government of India?
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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