Jaitley under fire: Modi can't ignore rumblings for long

Jaitley under fire: Modi can't ignore rumblings for long
It is curious that criticism of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is coming from within the Sangh Parivar. The first salvo was fired by S Gurumurthy, a right-wing hardliner from the anti-economic reforms organisation, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch; the second by rebel-without-a-cause Subramaniam Swamy; and now, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

The two former finance ministers from the Congress — Dr Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram — had been speaking out against the Modi government’s handling of the economy for months. Singh and Chidambaram cannot be faulted, because it’s their job as opposition leaders to rap the government. It is the attack from the insiders that should bother Modi and Jaitley.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that the government will simply ignore the anti-Jaitley tirades of the “grumbling” insiders. Jaitley, in his riposte, singled out Sinha, saying that the latter had made a personal attack on him, not on his policies. Gurumurthy, Swamy and Sinha all clearly aimed to show up Jaitley as a bad finance minister. Swamy did not point to the folly of demonetisation, which was Modi’s decision, not Jaitley’s. It was announced neither by the finance minister nor by the RBI governor but by the prime minister himself. Among the insider critics, only Gurumurthy has been unambiguous about the folly of demonetisation. But even he is more acerbic about the incompetence of the finance minister than over the economic policy initiatives and interventions of the prime minister.

Jaitley should have hit back at Gurumurthy and Swamy, too, but he chose to be silent about them. His explicit rebuttal of Sinha and Chidambaram implies that Jaitley wants to retain the dignity of his office, and therefore he would cross swords only with former finance ministers. Jaitley can rightly pretend that Gurumurthy and Swamy do not deserve a response because they do not make the grade, and that the two remain on the margins. He would be right in his assumption.

Singh and Chidambaram, while criticising demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Service Tax (GST), are attacking the government of Modi, and Jaitley, too, comes in the line of fire because he is the finance minister. But it is different in the case of Gurumurthy, Swamy and Sinha. Theirs is envy and rage that Jaitley does not deserve to be finance minister, that he is given more importance and he enjoys higher status in the Modi government than he should.

But close observers of the government say that Jaitley’s elevated status is more a matter of perception than reality, and that the only man who counts in the government is Modi himself. In fact, it is whispered that Modi trusts revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia more than he trusts the finance minister. That perception, although unverified, carries credibility because Modi has been directly interacting with the secretaries in all the ministries, and the bureaucrats now have direct access to Modi.

What’s on PM’s mind?

Quite clearly, many in the Sangh Parivar want Jaitley to be replaced, but the wishes of a Gurumurthy and a Swamy do not carry any weight unless Modi wants to heed their criticism. So, the key question is whether Modi is inclined to listen to Jaitley’s critics. No one can claim to know Modi’s mind. Therefore, it can only be assumed, given that Jaitley is still standing, that Modi hasn’t had second thoughts about his finance minister so far.

Secondly, would Modi want to be seen as taking on board the criticisms of Gurumurthy, Swamy and Sinha about the economy and take corrective action? Modi-watchers say that the constitution of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council under Bibek Debroy is a sign that Modi is now not so sure about the state of the economy as he seemed to be in the last three years, and he is looking around for other views and other perspectives.

It is futile to posit a rift between Modi and Jaitley, simply because Modi’s presidential style of functioning does not allow any room for differences of opinion in the government. His cabinet ministers do not have any views that are different from his. Modi’s supporters have conceded right from the day he took over as prime minister in 2014 that he would act more on his own instincts and native wisdom rather than follow the traditions of cabinet government, where ministers bring to the table their own ideas and the prime minister acts in concert with them, reconciling differences through constant discussion. Decision-making remains exclusively with Modi.

As prime minister, he is not merely the first among equals. Rather, he is the General, and the others in government merely carry out his orders. This may not be so in reality, but there is no attempt on the part of Modi and his cabinet colleagues to project that this is not the case. It only strengthens the suspicion that Modi is treated as the supreme leader and no one dares to offer him any advice as such.

The ruckus created by Gurumurthy, Swamy and Sinha, therefore, is more in the nature of an inner-party squabble rather than a concern about the state of the economy. But the fact that these individuals have chosen to speak out after three years of Modi government shows that there is intense political seismicity inside the BJP and that Modi is not really the monarch of all he surveys. At least, not anymore. There are rumblings within. They can be ignored for the moment, but not for long.

(The writer is a political commentator)

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