January 23, 2019 / 4:10 PM / in a month

Finance Minister Jaitley will not present budget as he faces surgery: source

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will not present the government’s crucial interim budget next week because he is expected to undergo surgery, according to a source familiar with the matter. He has been replaced on an interim basis by railways and coal minister Piyush Goyal.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley attends a news conference sharing details about the recapitalisation of public sector banks in New Delhi, India, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal/Files

The announcement is a blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Jaitley is widely regarded as one of Modi’s best communicators of policies ahead of a general election that must be held by May.

The February 1 budget is expected to be full of measures aimed at appealing to angry farmers - whose incomes have been badly hurt by low crop prices - and small businesses, in an attempt to increase job creation.

The appointment of Goyal was announced by the office of President Ram Nath Kovind.

Two sources familiar with the matter confirmed that Goyal will replace Jaitley in presenting the government’s budget.

One of the sources said that Jaitley was expected to undergo surgery as soon as Thursday in New York.

The government has not commented on Jaitley’s medical condition. A finance ministry spokesman declined to comment on specifics of his illness.

Jaitley, a prominent member of Modi’s inner circle, had gone to New York for a medical check-up earlier this month. He had a gastric bypass operation in 2014 to keep his diabetes in check and kidney transplant surgery last year.

The interim budget assumes more importance in the light of the results of an opinion poll released on Wednesday. That showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party could be crushed by an opposition alliance in the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in the general election.

The 66-year-old Jaitley is also the publicity head of the BJP’s election team. He often speaks on behalf of the government.

Goyal previously took charge of the finance ministry when Jaitley was absent for three months while recovering from the transplant surgery last year.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Edited by Martin Howell

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