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Shah will enjoy his new job, but will Sitharaman?

June 04, 2019 09:45 IST

If Amit Shah is likely to take to the home ministry like a duck to water, Nirmala Sitharaman's handling of finance will show whether she will justify the confidence which Modi has placed in her, says Amulya Ganguli.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

There is an element of contradiction in Narendra Damodardas Modi's choice of Amit Anilchandra Shah as home minister.

At one level, it underlines the prime minister's commitment to a strong State since Shah is known as a no-nonsense leader who takes no prisoners.

Nothing demonstrates his outlook more starkly than his description of illegal Muslim immigrants as 'termites', which attracted the ire of the US state department while Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has laughed it off, reiterating her country's claim that there are no Bangladeshis in India.

At another level, however, Shah's hardline attitude can run counter to Modi's latest efforts to reach out to the Muslims by adding the phrase, sabka vishwas (everyone's trust) to the earlier sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan of across-the-board development.

True, Indian Muslims are not illegals, but in the demographic salad bowl of India, especially in Assam and West Bengal, distinguishing between the two is an arduous task, as the characterisation of a war hero as a foreigner in Assam has shown.

 

It is not only the new home minister's tough stance on the national register of citizens and the citizenship bill which can create tension between the political parties, his hawkish attitude on Articles 370 and 35A relating to Kashmir can prove to be equally problematic although it is in line with the saffron camp's longstanding view.

Rajnath Singh's tenure was relatively mild in this respect as it did not lead to any confrontation between the centre and the states.

It is yet to be seen whether Shah will lower the temperature or raise it.

If it is the latter, he will be playing into the hands of an otherwise moribund Opposition, which is at a loss for a stick with which to beat the government.

However, Shah's is not the only appointment which is liable to keep the Opposition parties on tenterhooks.

IMAGE: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, only the second woman to hold that position. Photograph: Kham/Reuters

Nirmala Sitharaman's is the other one which has the potential to take the government out of the woods or deeper into them.

If Shah is likely to take to the home ministry like a duck to water because he is bound to relish the enormous clout which it confers, Sitharaman's handling of finance will show whether she will justify the confidence which Modi has placed in her apparently because of her performance in the defence ministry.

Yet, more than any other portfolio, finance is at present the most tricky.

The economy is known to be not in the pink of health with the growth rate dropping below 6%.

Besides, foreign investment is not looking up while joblessness continues to be at a 45-year high.

There is little doubt that the BJP's electoral success was based more on hope, as in 2014, than in actual achievement.

Not much, therefore, can be said to have changed in the last five years.

It is only the high expectations which the people have placed in Modi's ability to turn things around which are behind the BJP's runaway victory.

But it is obvious that cooking gas, toilets, electrification and bank accounts cannot forever propel forward the BJP.

There is also the need for what is known as big bang reforms, which means growth in the fields of manufacturing and exports based on both domestic and foreign investment.

Unless these are forthcoming, the future will remain uninspring.

Sitharaman, therefore, will face the sternest test of her career.

The other two among the Big Four -- Rajnath Singh in defence and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in external affairs -- do not face the kind of problems which Shah may over the Muslim or Maoist issues or Sitharaman over the economy.

At the same time, the need for speedy modernisation of India's defence requirements will need all of Rajnath Singh's attention while Jaishankar will have to tread carefully in the minefield of India's thorny relations with Pakistan and suspicions about China.

However, it is a matter of satisfaction that the BJP has moved far from the time when the paucity of talent in the party led to Arun Jaitley holding the two major portfolios of finance and defence at the same time while waiting for Manohar Parrikar to fly in from Goa to take charge of the defence ministry.

In contrast, the lateral induction of Jaishankar has shown that the BJP is no longer constrained by the need for having only saffron-hued apparatchiki in ministerial positions.

The entry of experts will be like a breath of fresh air, diluting some of the rigidity of the party's ideological frame.


Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs.

AMULYA GANGULI