On January 9, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was taking suggestions from top economists of the country to get the economy out of the crisis, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was meeting party officials at the BJP office. Sitharaman could not be seen even three days ago when the Prime Minister was meeting industrialists Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani, Anand Mahindra and others to discuss the Budget 2020-21.
A number of questions were raised at that time about the absence of the Finance Minister ahead of the Budget on February 1. Everyone wanted to know why she was not there because late Arun Jaitley used to participate in all such meetings when he was the Finance Minister. For instance, Jaitley was also present with PM Modi at a meeting with economists on January 10, 2019, before the final budget of the first term of the government.
When IANS spoke to sources close to the Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party and the government, it learnt why Sitharaman was absent at these meetings.
Sources associated with the RSS and the government told IANS that Modi felt that to bring the crisis-ridden economy back on track, bitter facts should be heard from the industrialists and economists by interacting with them openly.
PM Modi wanted feedback on the functioning and performance of the Finance Ministry. He felt that the industrialists and economists might not be able to openly express their views in the presence of the Finance Minister because they might be uncomfortable in questioning the policies of the Finance Ministry in front of Sitharaman.
Why the PMO didn't invite Sitharaman
This was the reason why the PMO did not invite Sitharaman to these two meetings, the sources said.
Dilip Deodhar, a Sangh ideologue who has written more than 40 books on the RSS, said something similar. He told IANS quoting the discussions in the 'Sangh Parivar', that "PM Modi had clearly told the industrialists and economists in the meeting that he would not listen to praise but wants suggestions. He would also listen to bitter things about the government. He also sought feedback on the policies of the Finance Ministry."
The roadmap for the target of a $5 trillion economy was discussed in these meetings.
Nirmala Sitharaman had to face criticism from the opposition for being absent from these meetings. She also gave a clarification on January 19 following attacks by Congress leaders like Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan.
Nirmala had said that she had participated in other programmes on the day of the meeting on January 9, only with the approval of the Prime Minister. In a statement in Chennai, she said: "I took part in another programme with the approval of the Prime Minister. But without full knowledge of the facts, some people are making comments. I am aware of my work and work is going on for the Union Budget."
According to government sources, the Prime Minister holds such meetings with economists and industrialists to take suggestions from them every year before the Budget.
After coming to power for the second time, Modi has kept Sitharaman away from such meetings till now.
Sitharaman was also absent from the meeting convened in June before the Budget was presented on July 5 last year. However, in 2017 and 2018, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley attended such meetings.
However, sources in the Finance Ministry said that Sitharaman has been involved in discussions with economists and industrialists separately. There is no compulsion for the presence of the Finance Minister in the Prime Minister's meetings with economists.
On January 9, Prime Minister Modi attended a meeting of industrialists along with Home Minister Amit Shah, Union Road and Transport and MSME Minister Nitin Gadkari, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar. NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar and CEO Amitabh Kant were also present at this meeting.
Earlier, in a meeting with industrialists on January 6, Modi took feedback from them on the situation across industries and sought suggestions on increasing the economic growth rate.