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Arun Jaitley returns to office, takes charge of finance and corporate affairs ministries

Arun Jaitley

After a gap of more than 90 days Union Minister Arun Jaitley got back his finance portfolio and resumed charge. In the bullet proof Tata safari customised by the Home ministry he drove up-stepped out and waved at the large posse of media persons who had parked themselves in the little patch of green outside the finance ministry office in north block. He walked towards the journalists, greeted them and then turned back to walk inside his north block office.

His personal staff and officers escorted him to his office. And soon he was holding his first meeting after assuming charge. The secretary financial services, finance secretary, Central Board of direct taxes chief and other officers briefed him on the latest.

Though he has been keeping an eye on the economy and the ministry from the sanitised confines of his home after a kidney transplant on May 14, the economy due to weakening rupee, the fallout it promises and merely nine months left for the Lok Sabha polls are formidable challenges.

The rupee had breached the 70 mark against the dollar in early August. That is hitting the high fuel imports in a volatile petroleum market and escalating concerns about the current account deficit.

The rising NPAs stand at Rs 8 lakh crore and governments push to get all NPAs out is being used by he opposition to claim that during the NDA period the bad loans are rising and defaulters like Mallya, Nirav modi and others are serving as examples of failure of the government to harness the situation.

The One tax for all India GST is 13 month old. In recent months under pressure from opposition and BJP’s RSS siblings the government has gone for tax cut on hundreds of items and services. The government says the impact of these tax cuts would be compensated by greater sales. But it’s a fact that for the government increase in revenue is top priority to fund image changing pro-poor schemes.

Jaitley also needs to supervise the future plans for Air India. The disinvestment plan has been shelved due to the bad publicity it may invite. But now the airline needs money to pay its loans. Air India is saddled with over Rs 50,000 crore as debt and there is a proposal under consideration to transfer its non-core assets like real estate and hotels to a special purpose vehicle and sell them off to provide the much needed cash to the airline.

As finance minister all eyes will be on who Jaitley-Modi duo pick as the next Chief Economic Advisor after Arvind Subramaniam left for the US before the end of his term. The government has to find a sharp economic navigator at a time when the swadeshi elements in the Sangh Parivar have raised the red flag against appointment of someone like Subramaniam with a long history of having worked outside India.

The other big hurdle is the political narrative developing ahead of the crucial 2019 polls when PM Modi will seek a re-Election. The opposition has finally got its act together and is poking holes in the “better growth during nda years” story woven by the BJP. Congress president Rahul Gandhi on home soil and abroad has started targeting PM Modi.

For example, at Hamburg, Germany Rahul Gandhi’s speech was a clear attempt to derail the high growth, right reforms and good governance global narrative PM Modi has carefully constructed in the last 52 months.

The NDA government, he said, “feel[s] that tribal communities, poor farmers, lower caste people, minorities shouldn’t get the same benefits as the elite”. He accused the Modi administration of “attacking the support structures created to help certain groups of people”.

The BJP is not free of worry over Rahul Dandhi’s attempts to alter the narrative against PM Modi. While the western world and global rating agencies have been upgrading India and crediting Modi, the Congress plans to add the negatives of NDA governments policies to the narrative.

That’s why Rahul Gandhi attacked not GST as a reform but its “shoddy implementation”, not growth but jobless growth. And claimed there are policies – which benefit the rich not the poor.

The NDA governments economic track record on growth will need some defending especially after draft report on GDP back series data prepared by a government-backed committee showed that the economy grew best in recent times at 10.8 per cent during UPA rule not NDA.

Jaitley’s cautious return

Jaitley is back but the medical caution he has to exercise against infections is in place. He look slimmer and walked with ease but the doctors watching his recovery from the transplant feel he is not ready for a full day at office – handling politics and economics of the BJP government.

During the last three months while Piyush Goyal ran the ministry, Jaitley worked virtually as chief consultant on key issues, including governments response to Rahul Gandhi’s letter to PM on women reservation bill and the stand on National Register for Citizen or NRC. He wrote blogs on issues setting the governments tone like on emergency at a time when the Congress was claiming democratic institutions being stifled by Modi government.

The national mourning after the death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his one time mentor and boss in the Cabinet delayed the re-allocation of finance portfolio.

The team of doctors had ordered a major sanitisation and cleanliness drive at the finance ministry. From the reception to the stairs, lift, and his office – almost every spot was cleaned and fumigated. To ensure minimum exposure to human borne infections hand sanitizers were placed all over. At the entry to his room disposable shoe covers were placed and made mandatory for those visiting him. From the corridors the smelly old carpets and doormats have been discarded.

Officers, who over the last 48 months, had gotten used to Jaitley’s style of running the ministry expressed satisfaction at his return as they feel that Piyush Goyal a very hands on minister was still considered “interim”.