It's high time Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a full-time defence minister. As his government enters the last two years of its term, there is massive work in both defence and finance ministries, requiring the undivided attention of a full-time minister each. Currently, finance minister Arun Jaitley doubles up as defence minister.
The time is ripe right now. NDA's vice-presidential candidate Venkaiah Naidu has just vacated two ministries, adding to the list of ministries being looked after by part-time ministers. General elections are 20 months away, so a rejigged council of ministers will have enough time to deliver on critical reforms in all spheres, especially economic and defence.
On the economic front, the Modi government has far more battles left to fight. Beyond the introduction of two of its most critical reforms – roll out of Goods and Services Tax (GST) and bankruptcy code and a series of incremental reforms such as taking ahead the Aadhar-linked Direct benefit Transfer (DBT) programme and subsidy rationalisation – the Modi government needs to resolve bad debts in the banking sector, push ahead the privatisation agenda of ailing PSUs and banks and see through reforms in land and labour.
In the finance ministry, Arun Jaitley has done a fairly good job in taking the lead to generate consensus for making the GST happen. His initiative to make the bankruptcy code a reality too has been a crucial fillip to the economy. However, there hasn't been much luck in addressing the banking sector problems so far. Economic growth remains anaemic.
Jaitley, as finance minister, has all along been struggling to impart the kind of confidence in private investors to resume the investment cycle. Bad loans remain a major challenge and the accompanying capital burden has the potential to disrupt the government's budget calculations in a big way. This year and next are crucial for the economy which warrants his undivided attention in the finance ministry.
Similarly, new challenges are emerging for the defence ministry, with China upping its ante on the Sikkim border and Pakistan continuing to escalate tensions. Defence of the country has always been a full-time job, more so now with the situation on western and eastern borders as volatile as it is. One can't be too sure if relying on a part-time defence minister would suffice.
The Modi government has managed to bring the reform momentum back to the economy in its initial three years of rule after a decade long policy paralysis and corruption. The victory on GST roll out has offered hopes of more reforms happening in the remaining two years. The signals given by the cabinet to privatise Air India suggest this positive outlook of the government.
The remaining two years is the time to give a final push to the rest of the reform agenda. Privatisation of state-run banks and other ailing PSUs, bad loan resolution, creating the right framework for small entrepreneurs and pursuing fresh private investments should remain the top of the agenda. At the same time, the government will have to ready the security establishment to face the emerging challenges from across the borders.
A minister over-burdened with part-finance, part-defence may have worked so far but may not be ideal to face the challenges ahead. Modi needs full time ministers for both these critical ministries.
Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 19:54 PM