(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Una Galani
MUMBAI, May 3 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Foreigners sometimes imagine India as brimming with highly skilled professionals. The concentration of power around Prime Minister Narendra Modi creates a different impression. Arun Jaitley, the country’s minister for finance and corporate affairs, now also oversees defence. That puts him in charge of multiple key portfolios just as New Delhi tries to implement deep reforms.
The empowerment of a few is the typical playbook of a strongman ruler. Modi seems keen to govern the nation in the same centralised way that he led the state of Gujarat. The set-up also reflects the domination of the Congress party in India since independence, which has left the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lacking a deep pool of senior cadres with legislative experience.
In fairness, ministers with many briefs are not new. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is also the finance minister. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in charge of foreign affairs, among other things. Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, has enormous influence with a role spanning everything from Middle East peace and relations with China, to criminal justice reform.
India’s sheer size and complexity is a good reason to shun such practices, however. Jaitley briefly held both the finance and defence portfolios early in Modi’s premiership. In March, he took back defence from an individual who is now chief minister of Goa. That leaves the 64-year-old, who had a gastric bypass in 2014, with a giant to-do list that would be a tall task for anyone.
India is currently trying to implement a new goods and services tax, one of the world’s biggest-ever fiscal reforms. The country urgently needs a solution to the bad debt that is clogging up state banks and in turn dampening the animal spirits of local companies. Defence is a big job too, given strained relations with Pakistan. Military spending will account for a massive 12 percent of the government expenditure on major items through to March 2018.
India’s economy is growing fast relative to others, but still not fast enough to meet aspirations and create sufficient jobs. More hands on deck might help.
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- Arun Jaitley is India’s minister for finance, defence, and corporate affairs.
- Jaitley was re-appointed defence minister after Manohar Parrikar stepped down in March to become chief minister of the Western state of Goa. Jaitley previous held the posts of finance and defence from May to November 2014. It is not clear how long he would keep the two portfolios this time.
- Emails from Reuters Breakingviews to Jaitley’s office went unanswered.
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Editing by Quentin Webb and Nicolle Liu