After a second spell of hospitalisation, Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sword arm, is set to return to work shortly.
Having recovered from ailments following a bariatric procedure, the minister was discharged from the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Monday. Doctors said he was mobile and cheerful and had started clearing files. He would resume going to office in a few days.
Jaitley had been admitted to an isolation unit of AIIMS after he complained of respiratory problems last week. This was after his stay in a private hospital, where he had been readmitted for post-surgery check-up.
“His return is a matter of great relief both for the party and the government,” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National Secretary Shrikant Sharma said. “All of us are extremely happy that Arun (Jaitley)ji has fully recuperated and has been discharged from the hospital. He is a big asset for us, not only in the party but in the government. His absence was acutely felt. It is nearly a second nature for several of us to turn to him for guidance; he has been a mentor to many of us. He had been talking to us regularly over the phone during his hospital stay but we are all thrilled to find him physically in our midst,” he said.
Jaitley on Monday came back firing on all cylinders – amid firing across the Line of Control (LOC) by Pakistan, in violation of the ceasefire with flagrant disregard for Eid celebrations. He issued a warning to Islamabad: “Pakistan has been trying to create tension on both the international border and the LOC… This is resulting in a series of ceasefire violations, as a result of which innocent civilians have lost their lives. Pakistan must realise that the kind of environment it is generating between the two countries is certainly not going to help in normalising relations. The onus of creating a positive environment is on Pakistan, which is utterly failing to do so.”
“Let everybody be assured that our armed forces and paramilitary forces are fully ready and they are responding to each of these provocations from Pakistan,” Jaitley said.
As defence minister, Jaitley will immediately have to address the issue at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China as well. The recent Chumar build-up, during the time he was in hospital, happened on a stretch guarded by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which reports to the home ministry. There is a command-and-control problem that he will need to sort out with Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
The Combined Commanders Conference, an annual meeting of the Commanders of the three defence services, will begin next Monday. This, traditionally addressed by both the prime minister and the defence minister, is likely to be Jaitley’s first engagement.
The Defence Framework Agreement, a dense and complex document that is back in focus after the PM’s recent visit to the US, will need Jaitley’s drafting skills. In 2005, the then defence minister (now President), Pranab Mukherjee, had returned it on the ground that the draft he had endorsed was not the same as the one finally put up to him.
The most crucial of the assignments, however, is going to be the issue of defence acquisitions. At a press conference on October 4, ahead of Air Force Day, the Chief of Air Staff had flagged the point that decision-making in acquisitions needed to be hastened. The procurement of the MMRCA aircraft is still pending. The Army is still awaiting 145 M777 Howitzer guns and replacements for the 197 helicopters it is short of (now that the AgustaWestland deal has been cancelled). The issue of the Javelin anti-tank missile, co-designed and co-produced with the Americans, also has to be addressed.
Finance ministry officials have also been eagerly waiting for their minister to come back and clear pending files. Though Jaitley cleared some very important and urgent files from hospital, many other decisions are stuck for want of his signatures. When the minister joins office this week, he will have to speed up decision-making on issues like the new draft of the Constitution Amendment Bill for a Goods & Services Tax regime. Other important engagements will be selection of a chief economic advisor and filling up other vacant posts in the ministry (such as members on revenue boards), besides clearing the Cabinet note for setting up 3P India, disinvestment in more state-run companies and sale of residual stake in the erstwhile government companies. A decision on the Direct Taxes Code and reports of Tax Administration Reforms Commission will also have to be taken.
Jaitley has decided not to attend the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington later this week and his place will be taken by Finance Secretary Arvind Mayaram.
Some of the key finance ministry decisions, with the approval of Jaitley when he was in hospital, include setting up of a high-level committee to look into retrospective taxation, setting up of a panel to examine unclaimed amount in public provident fund, post office and savings schemes, setting up of an Expenditure Management Commission to suggest reforms in government spending, and setting up four different task forces to lay the road map for upgrade of existing agencies in the financial sector, besides establishment of new ones.
RARING TO GO
TASKS AWAITING JAITLEY
- Approval to the new draft of the Constitution Amendment Bill for GST (to be tabled in winter session of Parliament)
- Appointment of the chief economic advisor and other key officials, such as members of the revenue board
- Clearing Cabinet note for setting up 3P India, a new body to look at PPP projects; launching a PPP website
- Clearing proposals for sale of stake in state-run firms and residual stake in the erstwhile govt entities
- Deciding whether a direct taxes code is required to replace the I-T Act
- Considering reports of a Parthasarathi Shome-led commission
- Deciding on the report of the 14th Finance Commission
- Taking decisions on preparations for the next Budget, fixing revised and Budget estimates
- Aug 30: Jaitley addresses a press conference on 100 days of the NDA govt
- Sep 1: Is admitted to hospital for a diabetes-management surgery
- Sep 2: Undergoes a planned elective laparoscopic procedure
- Sep 10: Is discharged from hospital, attends a Cabinet meeting
- Sep 20: Skips a summit of G-20 finance ministers in Australia
- Sep 22: Skips a public event, is re-admitted to a Delhi hospital
- Sep 28: Is shifted to AIIMS to rest in complete isolation
- Oct 6: Is discharged from AIIMS, gives statement on Pakistan
- Oct 10: Will skip World Bank’s annual meeting in Washington