Key strategist and troubleshooter for Modi cites ill health ahead of swearing-in.
A day before the Modi 2.0 government is to be sworn in, Arun Jaitley on Wednesday wrote to the Prime Minister citing his inability to be part of the new government on health grounds and also promptly tweeted the letter. He held several key portfolios, including finance, corporate affairs, defence and information and broadcasting (the latter two briefly), in the first Modi regime, While the move put to rest speculations about the suave and articulate senior lawyer’s continuance as the finance minister, it amplified the rumours about who the successor in the North Block could be.
Meanwhile, Modi late on Wednesday evening drove to Jaitley’s official residence and was with him for sometime, officials said. The deliberations at the meeting were not immediately known.
Under Jaitley’s watch, the economy grew from 6.4% in FY14 — the last year of the UPA-II — to a peak of 8.2% in FY17 before slowing down to an estimated 7% or lower in FY19; although the credibility of the GDP numbers has been questioned by some analysts.
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, which facilitates early detection and time-bound resolution of bad loans, has emerged as one of the most crucial laws enacted by the Modi government with Jaitley at the helm of the finance ministry.
Even though the goods and services tax (GST) was rolled out with resolve by Jaitley – many in the centre-state GST Council credit him for his consensual approach that led to the ironing out of seemingly unbridgeable differences over the GST structure and the administration –, critics say the benefits of the epochal indirect tax reform hasn’t fully been derived by the economy due to its complexity, frequent tweaking and the absence of a foolproof invoices-matching system to check evasion.
“I am writing to you to formally request you that I should be allowed a reasonable time for myself, my treatment and my health and therefore, not be a part of any responsibility, for the present, in the new government,” Jaitley wrote. Without disclosing the ailment he is being treated for, Jaitley said he would continue to informally support the government and the party in any form that is required.
Jaitley, 66, was admitted to AIIMS last week to undergo tests and treatment for an undisclosed illness and was discharged on Thursday – the day results of the Lok Sabha elections were announced. He, however, did not attend celebrations at BJP headquarters that evening after the party’s emphatic victory. BJP won a landslide 303 seats, of the 542, in the general elections.
Jaitley underwent a surgery in the US on January 22 for a reported soft tissue cancer in his left leg, an illness that deprived him from presenting the Modi government’s sixth and final Budget of its current term. Railway and coal minister Piyush Goyal was the stand-in finance minister who presented the Interim Budget for 2019-20. Jaitley returned to India on February 9 after undergoing skin grafting. He is believed to have undergone some kind of medical procedure again when he visited the US last month to attend the IMF-World Bank Group Spring Meetings.
One of the most prolific voices in the Modi government and a key strategist, Jaitley did not contest the recent Lok Sabha elections presumably because of his ill health. To the world and the nation, he explained the global context of rising fuel prices, articulated a complex Rafale fighter jet deal in simple terms, steered through Parliament major economic legislation. When the government was being criticised for interfering in the judiciary, it was the doughty lawyer-turned-politician who defended its record and commitment to democratic values. He was also the man who explained the government position when a Bill to ban the Muslim instant divorce practice known as ‘triple talaq’ was brought.
Jaitley was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and when Modi swept to power in 2014, he was made the finance minister and also handled briefly the additional charge of defence and information and broadcasting ministries.
Under Jaitley’s watch, retail inflation – which had hit 9.5% in FY14 – consistently dropped each year despite drought in two of the past five years and touched 3.4% last fiscal. Fiscal deficit, too, improved from 4.5% of GDP in FY14 to 3.4% in FY19, even though the target of containing it at 3% has been deferred by two years through FY21.
(With PTI inputs)