Nirmala Sitharaman gets defence, Piyush Goyal railways; former bureaucrats get key economic portfolios.
An urgency to get the economy — which is in the throes of a demand compression — back on track and quicken the delivery on its pet social-sector projects ahead of the 2019 Parliament elections was unmistakable in Sunday’s Cabinet rejig by the Narendra Modi government, the third such exercise after it assumed office in May 2014. Laggards may hot have been all axed but were either cut to size or given able deputies but performers in key economic ministries were elevated and/or given more demanding assignments.
Ex-bureaucrats with little political heft or experience were brought in to handle important economic portfolios like power, housing & urban affairs and tourism, in what indicated the limited administrative talent pool with the Bharatiya Janata Party but also the increased premium on potential performance.
Nirmala Sitharaman, who was minister of state for commerce and industry, was not only promoted to Cabinet rank, but was given the heavyweight defence ministry and ipso facto a seat on the Cabinet Committee on Security. The 58-year-old former BJP spokesperson is the first full-time woman defence minister of the country (as the prime minister, Indira Gandhi held the portfolio briefly in 1975 and then between 1980-82).
Piyush Goyal and Dharmendra Pradhan were also among the four elevated to the Cabinet. Goyal, who oversaw scam-free auctions of coal blocks, launched the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (Uday) scheme for salvaging the debt-trapped state power distribution entities and promoted tariff-based competitive bidding for solar and wind power as the power and coal minister, got the railway ministry. He will also retain the coal department. The trained chartered accountant will have the challenging task of fixing the railways’ finances and improving its poor safety profile. Goyal will also have to deliver on many of Modi’s dream projects like electrification, high-speed trains and green corridors.
The challenges before him include augmenting the capital expenditure in the sector despite the transporter hardly making any profits, increasing revenue without inflating the freight, which is already one of the highest in the world.
For Raj Kumar Singh, the new minister of state with independent charge for power and renewable energy, the immediate challenge is to address the financial threats facing the thermal power generation sector from low capacity utilisation due to tepid power demand growth and rampant capacity addition in the renewable energy sector. As minister, the former home secretary will also have to tackle the vexed issue of stalled and stranded assets in the sector — more than half of the total gas-based capacity of about 25,139 MW remains stranded due to unavailability of natural gas.
Under Singh’s predecessor, 16 state governments have together taken over around Rs 2.32 lakh crore debt of their discoms under the Uday scheme, helping the discoms save Rs 15,000 crore till March from lower interest rates.
Dharmendra Pradhan will now handle skill development ministry also apart from the sensitive petroleum and natural gas portfolio, which he has handled as minister of state.
The young BJP leader from Odisha has kept the petroleum sector controversy-free, implemented the direct benefit transfer scheme for LPG with finesse, eliminated the under-recoveries of oil marketing companies and prompted private-sector biggies like Reliance Industries and BP to invest afresh by ensuring remunerative prices for gas from deep-water blocks.
Transport minister Nitin Gadkari, who has eased the concerns of investors in the highway sector, increased the pace of road construction and made port-sector public-private partnership projects more pragmatic, will now additionally oversee water resources and Ganga Rejuvenation, a high-profile project of the Modi government.
Suresh Prabhu, who had publicly expressed his reluctance to continue as the railway minister in the wake of a slew of rail accidents, got the equally important commerce and industry ministry, vacated by Sitharaman.
Contrary to reports that his poor performance might cost him his job, Radha Mohan Singh was retained as the minister of agriculture and farmers welfare. He will now have a new deputy at Parshottam Rupala.
None was inducted into the Cabinet from outside the BJP, scotching speculations that the Janata Dal (United), a recent entrant into the ruling National Democratic Alliance and the All India Anna might get Cabinet berths. While JD (U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said his party was not invited to join the Cabinet, no minister was sworn in from the AIADMK either, despite the recent rapprochement by its two key factions, showing that BJP’s relations with these parties are still tenuous, rather than cemented.
Retired Indian Foreign Service officer Hardeep Singh Puri will handle the ministry of housing and urban affairs, which implements the electorally rewarding Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
Alphons Kannanthanam, who took voluntary retirement from IAS, is the minister of state (independent charge) for tourism and will also assist Ravi Shankar Prasad in the ministry of electronics and information technology.
Santosh Kumar Gangwar has replaced Bandaru as the minister of labour and employment, while the government is facing charges of low growth in job creation and has a challenging agenda of labour reforms. Shiv Pratap Shukla is the new minister of state in the finance ministry. Among those who lost the minister berths in the latest reshuffle are Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Kalraj Mishra.