NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi strengthened his government on Sunday, appointing 21 new ministers in an attempt to speed up promised economic reforms after storming to power five months ago.
Four of them were sworn into the cabinet, which is now 27-strong, during a ceremony at the presidential palace, while the number of junior ministers in the right-wing government has risen by 17 to 39.
“This expansion was on the cards from some time. It has emerged as a good blend of youth and experience,” a spokesman for the ruling party told the NDTV network.
“Regional representation has been kept in mind,” Aman Sinha added of the reshuffle, the first since Modi’s party won a landslide election victory in May.
Newcomer Manohar Parrikar, a sauve leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the tourist state of Goa, was tipped to become the new defence minister when the portfolios were formally announced late Sunday or Monday.
Parrikar’s likely appointment would ease the burden on Arun Jaitley, who has been juggling both the defence and finance ministries while battling ill-health.
The move would allow Jaitley to focus on steering through difficult reforms pledged during the election to revive the faltering economy.
“(The) economy was, and is, in a challenging situation and one of the primary challenges is to restore confidence in the economy,” Jaitley said at an economic forum in New Delhi before the swearing in.
The new ministers were drawn almost entirely from the ranks of the Hindu nationalist BJP and include controversial MP Giriraj Singh and Jayant Sinha, the Harvard-educated son of a former BJP finance minister.
Singh, from the eastern state of Bihar, came under fire during the election campaign for saying that “those who oppose Narendra Modi should go to Pakistan”.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a popular Muslim face in the party, was appointed a junior minister, along with only one additional woman — low-caste Hindu hardliner Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti.
This took the total number of women in government to eight.
Land and tax reforms
After his election win, Modi had opted for a leaner government than the previous administration, which he said would speed up decision-making and slash India’s notorious bureaucracy.
But analysts say some ministers and bureaucrats, handling multiple portfolios, have felt overloaded.
The economy expanded last year by a near-decade low of 4.7 per cent. The country needs double-digit expansion to create enough jobs to employ a ballooning youth population, economists say.
Although it has introduced some reforms, the government has so far steered clear of “big bang” initiatives that economists say are needed to boost investment and manufacturing.
Jaitley said Sunday he would secure parliamentary approval for changes to India’s complex process of buying land for industry and infrastructure, in a bid to attract foreign investment.
Land acquisition is a politically charged issue, which has delayed many projects sometimes for years, including construction of a $12-billion plant by South Korean steel giant POSCO in the country’s east.
Jaitley also said talks were well under way between India’s states and other stakeholders on revamping the tax system, including introducing a national goods and services tax.
Industry welcomed the ministerial expansion, saying cabinet ministers could now focus on a single portfolio, to speed up decision-making which stalled under the previous Congress government.
“The cabinet expansion sends out a strong signal that the government under Prime Minister Modi is serious about accelerating the reforms process,” said Confederation of Indian Industry president Ajay Shriram.
Modi wants a strong ministerial team in place before parliament’s winter session, which begins on November 22.
The nationalist leader is also eyeing state elections next year, with Sunday’s strengthened government including plenty of regional leaders.