The knives are out for Arun Jaitley, union finance minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Man Friday. With both AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal and Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad seeking his ouster from the Modi cabinet over the alleged DDCA scam, the going will be difficult for the NDA government in the Budget Session, after the near washout of the Winter Session that ends today (23 December).
The clamour for Jaitley's ouster got an interesting and unexpected turn, ironically, with Modi's rather boisterous comment on Tuesday when he said that Jaitley will come out clean just the way the BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani was acquitted in the Jain hawala case in 1996.
When he drew a parallel between Advani and Jaitley, the Opposition was quick to latch on to it. Reason, Advani had resigned from his Lok Sabha seat. Azad said Modi's comment was an indirect message to Jaitley to quit.
"Today I heard that the Prime Minister said that Jaitley will come out of this like LK Advani in the Jain Hawala case. I will remind Jaitley that Advani had then resigned and had not come back till he got a clean chit from the Supreme Court," Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, told reporters in New Delhi, reported BusinessLine.
"So the Prime Minister seems to be telling Jaitley that he should not continue as Finance Minister till he gets cleared," he added.
If Jaitley were to take the high moral ground and indeed quit, what are the consequences for the Modi government at a time when the economy, by the NDA's own admission, is not in the pink of health, forcing a downward revision of GDP FY17 growth rate estimate to 7-7.5% from 8-8.5% earlier?
Of course, given that Jaitley's cabinet colleague and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj survived the Lalit Modi storm a few months ago and refused to quit, the finance minister may not quit. But should he quit, what would be the fallout? Also, if he doesn't, how would an emboldened Opposition respond during the Budget Session next year?
To begin with, Jaitley's exit, even if temporary, will hit the Modi government hard, just on the eve of the Budget. At stake is a lot for the BJP that came to power last May, riding on the development plank and the promise of creating millions of jobs. Besides throwing Budget preparations haywire, Jaitley's exit at this juncture would send the most inappropriate signal to international investors (FIIs) that the government is in a squeeze and would play safe, discarding economic reforms, or at least go slow. A sell-off in the Indian stock markets will be the first move of FIIs, fearing uncertainty. FDI proposals would be put on hold, impacting Modi's economic diplomacy.
Secondly, Jaitley's exit will weaken Modi and his government politically, ironically at a time when the Opposition's fortunes are on the rise. The JD (U)-Congress-RJD combine crushed the BJP in the recent Assembly polls in September-October, just about eight months after Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) delivered a humiliating defeat to the BJP in Delhi, reducing it to just three seats.
Besides playing filibuster - an art mastered by the BJP during its long years in the Opposition â€“ the Congress will force the government to backtrack on a slew of reforms that would send the wrong signals to the investor community.
Of course, with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal going to the polls next year, the BJP would not experiment much with reforms and present a populist face in the Budget, hoping to make inroads in these states where it has a negligible presence.
Of course, Jaitley's exit will give the the AAP, the Congress and other opposition parties to claim moral victory of having put the Modi government on the mat.
Now, what if Arun Jaitley does not quit?
The Budget Session will witness more disruption, making it even more difficult to pass the landmark Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill, and stall parliamentary proceedings, similar to that witnessed during the Winter Session a few days ago over the National Herald case.
While Jaitley has filed a Rs 10-crore defamation case against Arvind Kejriwal, Ram Jethmalani will be defending the AAP leader.
Irrespective of whether Jaitley stays or quits, the going will be tough for Narendra Modi.