OPINION: Healing touch in a hurry

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - Did union defence minister Rajnath Singh offer to resign after he was excluded from all top-level cabinet committees except two?

BJP circles are buzzing with speculation that the upset minister wanted to quit the cabinet over the perceived slight to someone of his stature and seniority. In the first tenure of the Modi government, Singh was a member of all the cabinet committees.

This privilege has been awarded to Amit Shah now with Singh out in the cold although technically, the defence minister remains the number two person in the union cabinet. Remember that he took the oath of office immediately after Narendra Modi and before Amit Shah. But after the list of cabinet committee members was released, it was quite clear who is the actual number two in the government.

It’s Amit Shah. He is on all eight committees including the powerful appointments committee which decides all top-level bureaucratic appointments in the central government and PSUs. The resignation buzz about Singh was fueled by the hurried amendments announced by the PMO. The membership of the committees was changed in a matter of hours to undo the perceived slight to Singh.

This is clear from the press releases issued by the government’s official mouthpiece, Press Information Bureau. The first list which featured Singh in only two committees – cabinet committee on security and cabinet committee on economic affairs – was uploaded on PIB’s website at 5:57 am on 6 June 2019. As news of Singh’s downsizing went viral on mainstream and social media, there was a flurry of activity in the top echelons of the government.

Phone calls were made. Party sources say word reached Modi that Singh was unhappy and wanted to resign. At 10:19 pm the same day, PIB uploaded a revised list on its website. In this list, Singh was shown as a member of six of the eight committees.

In addition, he has been made chairperson of the committee on parliamentary affairs. Hopefully, Singh has been pacified by the speed with which the PMO moved to apply the healing touch.

Like a duck to water

Former top diplomat and current external affairs minister in the Modi government, S Jaishankar, seems to have made a smooth transition from the bureaucracy to the world of politics. In the week or so that he’s been foreign minister, he’s already made several political statements.

The first was a tweet on the controversy surrounding the three-language formula proposed by the draft education policy. As Jaishankar’s home state of Tamil Nadu threatened to explode with protests, the new minister rushed to douse the flames. He put out a tweet that this was only a draft policy and no language would be imposed. He tweeted both in English and in Tamil.

A couple of days later, he was at CII delivering an address on India’s foreign policy. He talked on the growth of nationalism and its role in delivering electoral mandates. Soon after that, he was seen at minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s residence to celebrate Eid.

Jaishankar was present with a bevy of other ministers including defence minister Rajnath Singh. Someone commented that the former diplomat seems to have taken to politics like a duck to water.

Cooling his heels

The surprise visit of Pakistan’s new foreign secretary and former high commissioner to India, Sohail Mahmood, last week set off a huge buzz that he had come to prepare the ground for an offside bilateral meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan where both will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit meeting. Mahmood flew in on Tuesday and left on Friday but apparently, he did not meet anyone in the foreign ministry or in the PMO.

It seems the government is having second thoughts about a Modi- Khan bilateral so soon after an election in which Pakistan-sponsored terrorism was a key issue. Although officially, the Pakistan side said Mahmood had flown to India to help his wife finish packing and take his family back to Islamabad, the explanation simply doesn’t fly.

Everyone knows that top diplomats do not get involved in mundane things like packing. Nor do they have to hand hold their families and fly with them back home. Apparently, Pakistan decided to take a chance on a bilateral meeting. It sent Mahmood to Delhi in the hope that the new Modi government would agree to one. Mahmood had to cool his heels three days as he waited for a signal from MEA. No call came and he flew back a disappointed man after offering Eid prayers at Jama Masjid.

Jaitley’s suggestion

It seems Nirmala Sitharaman was appointed finance minister at the suggestion of her predecessor Arun Jaitley. A couple of day before the swearing in ceremony, Modi had visited his ailing cabinet colleague to offer him the post of minister without portfolio.

Jaitley refused, saying he did not need the perks of a union minister. He would prefer to spend time taking care of his health in his own residence in Delhi’s Kailash Colony. Apparently, it was during the course of the conversation that Jaitley suggested Sitharaman’s name. She has a post graduate degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. It may be remembered that Sitharaman has been a long time protégé of Jaitley.

She was inducted in the union council of ministers in Modi’s first term as PM at Jaitley’s suggestion. Apparently, on the two occasions that Jaitley had to take leave of absence from the finance ministry on health grounds, he had wanted Sitharaman to stand in for him. But Modi appointed Piyush Goyal instead.

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