India Gets Full-Time Defense Minister in Modi Cabinet Reshuffle – Bloomberg
India got a full-time defense minister after Prime Minister Narendra Modi shuffled his cabinet Sunday, a move that may speed up acquisitions as the government spends $250 billion on everything from warplanes to submarines.
Nirmala Sitharaman will be the nation’s second female defense minister, taking over the responsibility from Arun Jaitley, who had been handling the portfolio in addition to his finance duties.
The appointment gives India — a country faced with pressing security challenges and aging Soviet-era military equipment — a dedicated minister who may be able to speed up a defense procurement process plagued by bureaucratic delays.
“The absence of a full-time defense minister was glaring, especially since India faces a considerably challenging security scenario,” said Anit Mukherjee, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The move comes as part of a broader cabinet reshuffle in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and is aimed at spurring flagging growth and soothing social tensions before state elections due by January and a national vote in 2019. The reshuffle may rejuvenate the party as it seeks to maintain popularity even as it struggles to explain how economic growth slowed to just 5.7 percent last quarter, the least since Modi was elected in 2014.
Piyush Goyal — who was promoted earlier Sunday to cabinet rank along with three others including Sitharaman — has been assigned to run the railway ministry, replacing Suresh Prabhu, who offered his resignation last month following a series of train accidents. Prabhu now becomes commerce minister.
Dharmendra Pradhan, also a new cabinet elevation, retained the petroleum ministry and was given additional responsibility for skill development. There was no change in the portfolios of home and external affairs. Goyal will also head the coal ministry.
The need for a change in the status quo was particularly acute for defense. Some in India’s defense sector had grumbled about having a part-time minister, particularly given the recent military standoff with China that only eased after the two sides withdrew their forces. Modi can ill afford to relax his focus on security given his army chief has warned such encounters are likely to increase.
The drawback of having only a part-time defense minister was complicated by the fact Jaitley’s other portfolio was the powerful finance ministry, which demonetized 86 percent of the country’s currency last year and introduced a national goods and services tax in July.
Mukherjee, of the S. Rajaratnam School, said there has been a perception of a general drift in the defense ministry, and Modi’s record “so far been less than stellar” in the area.
Jaitley had been handling the defense portfolio in addition to his finance duties ever since former minister Manohar Parrikar became chief minister of the western state of Goa.
“Prominent members of India’s strategic community have been arguing vociferously for a full-time defense minister,” Mukherjee said. “The ministry of defense is much more than procurement reform or faster acquisitions, something that former minister Parrikar focused on. It calls for a much broader engagement.”
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